Human, gamer, philosopher, godlike being, atheist, nonmonogamous, pariah, contrarian by nature, probably occasionally right human who writes nonsense to very few people.
Some people come here only to downvote my posts. That seems sort of ridiculous, right?
One night recently, while having a particularly bad instance of insomnia, a thought occurred to me which did not help towards my goal of attaining my much desired portion of sleep. And in the last couple of weeks or so this thought has stuck with me. And in my malicious sense of obligation to share my thoughts, perhaps I can keep you up at night, as well.
What if it were the case that you knew, or were at least convinced, that the next time you fell asleep you would die. And given this knowledge/belief, you set about thinking about the repercussions of this unfortunate reality.
How long would you stay awake?
Take a moment and consider that, if you like. I’ll wait.
How sure are you about your answer? How terrifying is this to you?
The more I reflected on it, my mind conjured Stephen King-esque kinds of horror. How long could you stay awake? And, perhaps more importantly, for how long would it be worth staying awake?
This is a topic I have dealt with before, and given my proclivities towards existential thought I will likely return to it again. And yet as I write, I wonder to what extent this thought might seem banal to you, or maybe you haven’t lived with this thought experiment playing in your head for some amount of days and haven’t been haunted by it. Or, perhaps, I’m abnormal in being agitated by such a consideration. Perhaps it’s worrying that such a thought not only occurred to me, but that I permitted its continued potency to give life to my awakened anxiety.
It is in my nature that when such chained (chained to me, it so very unhappily seems) specters accompany me through my days, the most effective way to exorcise them is to articulate their form through this very medium. I must write them out. I must explore them more thoroughly, and translate them from the ghastly concepts and shadowy feelings into more stark and shapely words. In so doing, they do not leave my mind, but they do stop screaming. Mostly.
What kinds of imagery do I create when I’m contemplating this ghastly daydream?
Picture yourself awakening on a sunny, warm morning. You feel well rested, you have at your disposal the entire world, potential actions both mundane and ecstatic, and you find yourself utterly convinced that this fresh consciousness is all that you are offered, and that even the briefest nap, the most miniscule of nodding off, will mean that there will be no more awakenings. There may be more mornings, but each successive morning you experience will become daily offerings of decreasing worth. How many mornings until you can no longer even dread the new light of fewer possibilities? How long until you can barely even form a cohesive sense of self, and to no longer even be capable of despair? As sleep deprivation consumes you, you will lose yourself into a zombie-like state of exhaustion as your body gives out on you.
You know that you cannot stay awake forever. But you also won’t merely go about your day and go down with the sun that very first night, content in the day you have lived, would you? You would at least fight through that one tired, sleepless night, and force upon yourself one more adrenaline-fueled day, and refuse to merely and resignedly snooze your way peacefully into that unknown and unknowable forever sleep, right? You would fight to stay awake, you heroic protagonist in this story, and battle against the weight of your eyelids and you would soldier on and stay alive until….
I’ve certainly had days where I literally got no sleep the night before. There’s a wooziness and the perception of a lack of being fully present which persists, but it can be done and has been done by many of us, sometimes frequently for some who choose professions which may require it from time to time. But eventually, you must sleep, because sleep deprivation will kill you, eventually.
And so we sleep, eventually. In my experience, there is a strange and somewhat ironic quality of being too tired to fall asleep which then overtakes you as, after such a day, you pull that cover over yourself to finally rest. You know you need the sleep, you are quite exhausted, but sometimes the brain has stimulated itself with its own compounds of sustained attention that they have almost forgotten how to slow down, to sleep, and to do its nightly maintenance. You know, the maintenance required in order to store memories for the potential of a new day.
But what if you push through that second night? Is that third day one where you can find joy, appreciation, or even all of yourself? What of a fourth day? How many days, assuming you can stay awake, until it’s no longer even you? And how obvious is this metaphor becoming?
As the diminishing returns of the quality of your being conscious shamble on, as the lucidity of your striving to remain both awake and alive fades, the inevitable apotheosis towards Somnus, and to the oblivion which he rules, becomes immanent. Our power to fight against the inevitable is one that will be met by personalities which differ; there will be people who will struggle towards the fraying of their mind and memory, and who will have already gone into that dark night even as their eyes are still open and their mouth contests to form words which are barely contrasted from the blackness of deep meditation and the oblivion they refuse to submit to. And there will be those who, as the first sleepiness confronts them, will look into the eye of someone they love and smile in the contentedness of having had the time to love, to appreciate, and to have lived.
And when I meditate on this, feeling both the sadness and the desperation contained within, one concept keeps raising its head, and it becomes increasingly clear that this struggle is not one about the inevitability of sleep or death, but one of control. The question at the heart of this meditation is one of whether we can accept the reality that our power, our freedom, our determined obstinate force of will is ultimately impotent. In the end, the lesson may be that control is an illusion.
I was talking with some people the other night about free will, and a friend of mine said that if you’re riding a roller-coaster, you don’t get to choose where the car goes but you can wave your arms around. This, for him, was his free will. His level of control is, admittedly, limited but godammit he can wave his arms around, and so he is free.
This is unsatisfying to me. Not in the sense that I want to do more than wave or flap my arms around (perhaps in an attempt to fly), but in the sense that I don’t think that this freedom is the kind that I would want. I’m also not convinced that whether I wave my arms, and how hard I wave them, was ever my power to begin with. But I’m allowing the analogy to pull me too far from the track, and I’m getting away from my point….
How much can I do during my last days, my final awakened session, until I’m no longer me? How much control do I have upon first waking up versus day four or five? And if the quantity of control is definable in the beginning, on that sunny morning, and it approaches zero as the days go on, at what point does our control become an illusion? And what determines our varying personalities which lead to our differing responses to this circumstance? Why does one fight sleep for days while another accepts the inevitable and lays down at the end of a day or two? And, perhaps most interestingly, which of those two has or requires a greater level of control?
Because if it’s granted that both a person who fights through sleepiness for several days and the person who quietly and contentedly accepts the inevitable with greater clarity sooner are in control, is there any sense that one of them is more in control? Did they choose which path they would inevitably take? Compare a person who actively fights, stoically standing their ground against sleep, to one who graciously, and perhaps even epicureanly, accepts that the fight is one that cannot be won; which one is in more control?
This, to me, is a mind fuck. And I see people of varying personalities, all with their relative certainties and different levels of open-mindedness, all also with differing levels of perceived control. And while I understand the distinction between the level of mental control I have each morning I wake up as compared with the state of mind I might have if I stayed awake for 4 days, I’m more interested in the fact that the person who chooses to go to sleep that very night, knowing that they will not wake up, is perhaps just as in control as the person who eventually dies of sleep deprivation. The amount of control, of will, it would take to persevere towards a zombie-like death and the strength of will to calmly, happily, resign to sleep as soon as exhaustion presents itself are both types of control. But the question is whether they are varying types of strengths, or whether instead point to the illusory nature of control altogether.
It seems to me that the illusion of control is among the wiliest of devils. Because if it is an illusion, it is one that is literally the substance of awareness. It coexists with thought, intention, and decision. And as we wave our arms, joyous that we have this freedom, that roller-coaster continues to approach the end of its journey, and we have to ponder whether we ever actually chose to even be on this ride. None of use chose to be born. None us us choose to become exhausted. Continuing to wave our arms, perhaps to keep ourselves awake, isn’t the control I was looking for.
As your days progress, and as you eventually tire, are you what you choose? When will you realize that the decisions you make, whether for success, hedonism, interpersonal connection, or mere continued existence, are of similar potency as those who choose another path? And maybe the perception of control you have is real. But I’m not so sure that you would have, could have, done otherwise.
And then, for me at least, the distinction between my choices now and the inevitability of sleep and death collapse into each other, and I feel most free when I give up that sense of control. But that, too, feels like a choice. When will I finally realize that I’m not really in control?
When does sleep become the warm, cuddly, cold comfort which we all will eventually embrace?
Over the last year or so, two thoughts have occupied my conscious experience pretty often, and have returned as ideas I should write about. More recently, these ideas have started to introduce themselves to each other, flirt, and ultimately they started to have their bodily fluids exchange and an intersectional idea formed.
The first idea is about how we, humans, tend to misapprehend the world in a very specific way; we don’t understand what we are. The second idea is that we get in our own way, a lot. And the more I thought about these things, it started to become clear that these observations intersect in an interesting way, and I want to explore that idea today.
Are we the authority of who/what we are?
In a banal sense, we are obviously the most authoritative source of who we are. Only I have access to my thoughts, feelings, and worldviews. And in a legal, and possibly moral, sense, nobody has authority over what decisions I make or what I believe.
But in another sense, our idea of what we are, the narrative that we are telling, to ourselves about ourselves, is a kind of fiction. And we have multiple blind spots and missing angles of who and what we are which, sometimes, other people can see better than we can. There are times when our friends can see what we’re doing when we cannot. We may be responsible for our decisions (again, legally and morally), but we don’t necessarily have all the information relevant to understanding what we are doing. So, in some sense, we are not the authoritative source to who and what we are.
In a very literal sense, the processes that contribute to our behavior, beliefs, and decisions are happening on an unconscious level. I have annoyed friends, and other interlocutors, over the years explaining that not only is free will an illusion but neither our decisions nor beliefs are really “ours” in the sense that we didn’t consciously choose them. Yes it was us making the decision, but not the part of us which is conscious and aware. So are our beliefs, decisions, and actions sentient actions? The essential point here is that there are parts of us we don’t have conscious access to, and so we are only partially, at best, authoritative of who and what we are.
All of this is (perhaps) interesting and relevant in a philosophical sense, but it also has real life consequences when it comes to culture war issues. The concept of identity has become increasingly important in political, ethical, and legal questions in recent years. Many critics of some cultural trends will use terms like “identity politics” when talking about everything from Critical Race Theory (CRT) to gender theory. Whether we are talking about capital-B Black identity or children’s gender, the question is related to ideas of who and what individuals are, whether in an essentialist or political sense, and their rights based upon that identity.
The underlying assumption is that a person would know, better than we would, what they are. It’s not our place to tell them what gender they are, that’s for them to decide/define, not us. Same goes for blackness; perhaps it’s not up to Joe Biden to determine who is Black or not. Some critics of progressive ideas about race and gender have gone as far as to try to declare some objective reality which conflicts with such things, stating that sex is indeed binary (outside of rare intersex conditions) or that racial differences are real (so-called “race realism”).
Now, I’m not a fan of attempts to declare some objective perspective, from which we can impose some TruthTM onto the world. I don’t believe any objective perspective exists (I actually believe it’s an oxymoron). This is not to say that reality is subjective, only that there exists no god-like objective perspective from which to view it. For someone to claim some absolute truth in this way, when our entire language, culture, and worldview is an intersubjective construction based on an interpretation of actual reality is arrogant, at least to some extent. Someone claiming that there are only two sexes as an objective reality seems as if it were trying to point beyond the veil of our phenomenal perception into a noumenal, or to define a thing as absolutely and fundamentally so, as opposed to a taxonomy of a generally dimorphic species. In other words, some of this debate is about ontology, more than it is about laws or politics. Some people think that a creator/nature made us men and women, and this belief in a fundamental truth about the nature of sex/gender is based upon an ontological belief which others do not share.
But, also, I’m not advocating for any post-structuralist or postmodern idea of there being no truth or no reality; thus I reject the simplistic idea that everything is about power, domination, or mere subjective whim. We don’t, neither in some woo-woo spiritual nor Foucault-inspired ways, literally create the world with our various subjective/spiritual perspectives, which then fight for domination through the technê of culture, laws, etc. Insofar as we do literally create the world, the world still is real outside of this construction. I might agree that within the matrix of our culture, power structures, technê, etc have use (in the Wittgensteinian sense of that word), but they are not descriptions of reality behind that veil.
It is true that we, individually, literally construct the world that we understand, including ourselves. But the world itself exists (or so I’m convinced) external to our selves, and that we are left to interpret their reality based on a flawed and incomplete set of senses, language, etc. And in some complicated way, our own bodies are part of that external world, in the sense that we are matter which is somewhat self-reflective in an imperfect, semi-sentient, way.
Semi-sentient? What does that mean? Well, the idea is this; sentience, as the capacity to experience feelings and sensations Including thoughts, which I believe to be a subset of feelings/emotions (not separate from them) is not digital. It’s not on or off, it’s a continuum with many degrees, and whether there is an upper limit to this sentience is an idea I find fascinating and relevant to the idea that we are not authoritative about ourselves.
Imagine that, somewhere in the universe, there were a kind of intelligence/sentient being which was far more able to experience aspects of themselves and the universe than we can. What if they could perceive things like atomic motion, gravity on a large scale, or more forms of radiation? Would they not be more sentient than you or I? Would they not have more understanding of the universe or even their own self? Perhaps, with such sentience, the concept of self itself become grander? Perhaps there are selves that are more intensely self-like, and compared to them we are barely, or maybe just semi-sentient. And if we were to attain such greater sentience, we might better understand ourselves and the world which would make our current ideas about identity, gender, race, etc obsolete, wrong, or merely silly approximations of something even more complicated than we can currently understand. It’s a humbling thought.
Where does that leave us? What does that have to say about our identities, our sense of our own ‘race’ or ‘gender’? These are ideas that we, as a species and many cultures, are struggling with. And I have no idea how we will think about these things in 100 or 1000 years (assuming we are still around). But I have a fair amount of skepticism that what ideas we do have, my fellow progressive, are authoritative. This doesn’t mean that conservatives are right in their criticism, because it’s simply possible that nobody has a grip on these issues, and maybe nobody ever will. I don’t believe these are settled matters, even if I think that some people might be more right in the same sense that some beings might be more sentient. These things exist in gradations, not in digital, black/white, categories.
And yet we often find ourselves, we humans, involved in ideologies, living in subcultures with worldviews and opinions which we defend. We, a bunch of beings who barely understand what we, individually, are, somehow have the correct answers about some specific bits of this or that. And if you disagree, then you need to do the work. Our tendency to form foundations of identity leads us to form tribes, subcultures, and to collect around ideologies which begin to define us individually and communally. As we further attach to these identities, we become blinded by our selves and become stumbling blocks for ourselves. We get in our own way.
Getting in our own way
The other thing I’ve been thinking about is that we become enamored with convictions.
When I was in high school, we had a very good, especially comparatively, education about civil rights, religion, and ideas about progressive values. Among the books I remember reading was one called The Courage of Conviction. The idea is that there are certain people, worthy of reverence because they stuck by their principles, that we should try to emulate in our own lives.
And, at least to some extent, this is true; to not be tied to any principle at all is to be unreliable, untrustworthy, or even to be down-right immoral and bad. Being subject to mere whim, to be cynically opportunistic, or to be morally nihilistic is a recipe for being left aside in business, friendships, or romantic partners. That, or fantastically successful in politics.
But to be inflexibly ethical, to bind oneself to a principle or ideology is, in the Aristotelian sense, excessive as well. to make a rule and to make it absolute is, in my mind, not worthy of reverence any more than being nihilistic. In the alignment sense of lawful v chaotic, they are opposite sides of the same coin, if taken to extremes. Let’s use my value of caring about what is true as an example.
I believe that trying to find the truth is a good thing. I think that, at least in many cases, you can find what is likely to be true. It matters to me if an idea I have is a true idea, and I believe in skepticism (the need for evidence to accept something as likely true) and that we should actively try, at least sometimes, to find faults in our worldview. That is, I’m not epistemologically nihilistic, even if I believe that we can’t even be absolutely certain that anything is true (except, maybe, that at least I exist, even if not as I perceive myself to exist).
In some parts of our contemporary culture, there’s a phrase used by people disparagingly; “fuck your feelings”. The idea is that some people get caught up in sentimentality, cultural ideas, or are just brainwashed, and so one response is to say that one’s feelings are getting in the way of facts; of truth. And, to some extent, this definitely happens to humans. And perhaps one sentimental person, apparently oblivious to some hard fact or “truth” might argue that their interlocutor/pedantic truth-teller is missing the point about what really matters. Or maybe they simply disagree with what their interlocutor thinks of as ‘facts’ or ‘truth.’ But sometimes people do in fact have incorrect ideas due to poor thinking, emotional contagion, etc (I think religious/spiritual people tend to fall into this category).
But sometimes the “fuck your feelings” types are also, well, wrong. Ironically, their own feelings might be getting in the way, and what we might have are multiple perspectives which are all (or maybe most) wrong, and generally clouded by ‘feelings’. The attachment to a truth might be a good, useful, value, but this is a kind of conviction. The “will to truth” (as Nietzsche called it) is related to a cognitive error which humans are all-too-humanly prone to. The conviction to believe true things is not enough, here. As a former ideological mentor often has said, you have to want to believe true things and disbelieve untrue things. The combination is important; merely trying to believe true things won’t weed out the things you might be able to disprove, and the willingness to try to prove your ideas wrong is much more valuable, in terms of actually believing true things. How often do the “fuck your feelings” crowd try to prove their ideas wrong?
Conviction, then, can be an impediment to having good ideas. by attaching ourselves to facts, ideologies, or even whole worldviews is a means to attaching a bunch of claims, opinions, and moral perspectives onto ourselves. In other words, we start to identify with them. And when you mix this with how tribalism, or factions within cultures, causes self-censorship, pragmatic acceptance of ideas because they help maintain group-cohesion (and avoid canceling or ostracism), and other means of social contagions, we end up holding onto deeply-felt, deeply-held ideas which we will fight tooth and nail (whether on twitter, facebook, or truth social) to defend against ideas espoused by the hereticdeplorablelibtard other person with whom we disagree.
Whether we’re simply trying to understand the world or merely a specific idea, achieve a political/legislative goal, or merely get along with people at work, our inability to understand ourselves translates into an inability to see outside of our convictions which leads to nothing but problematic tribal loyalties. The next thing you know, you are chanting “black lives matter” or “Let’s go Brandon” or “trans women are women” or “sex is binary” while giving a side eye to someone within your tribe who isn’t chanting along, or who maybe seems to have some questions about your slogan. They might be your enemy, if they aren’t chanting along.
This leads to a situation where tribes start doing purity tests (AKA “cancel culture”), much like what John McWhorter claims in Woke Racism, where he claims that when people with questions, uncertainties, or quibbles about the catechisms of the group (McWhorter is convinced that the woke worldview is a new religion; I think that it shares many structures of religion, but that what’s actually happening is that tribal units supervene upon a set of behaviors that religion utilizes, but didn’t invent), then a kind of inquisition occurs and people become blasphemers or heretics. One might as well be in another tribe, because you obviously aren’t one of us, right TERF?
There’s a difference between being critical of a simplistic slogan and opposing it unequivocally. There’s a difference between being unsure about what we are or questioning our most sacred values and joining the “other” side. Whether it’s Kmele Foster insisting that race is not real and that he’s not black (or Black, for that matter) or people believing that some level of social contagion is responsible for the increase of children becoming trans, there exist positions which aren’t rejections of an idea, but an attempt to clarify the boundaries of a set of ideas. What stops us from being able to hear them as something other than a -phobia, a heresy, or as hateful or harmful (if not down-right violence) is, I believe, our inability to get out of our own way.
One must learn to dance, otherwise we become stiff, unagile, and unable to step around obstacles which we ourselves create.
What are we? (reprise)
But there is another sense in which we don’t know what we are which I keep thinking about, and this one is bigger, more philosophically grand, and which also has implications for the culture wars and pretty much everything human. I don’t think most people really have any idea what we are literally.
Some people think we are primarily immortal spiritual beings, or at least that we contain some magical part of ourselves which is more than mere matter. I don’t think that people understand that all of our thoughts, language, ideas, and even our culture are literally constructed in a physical, material, way and that we are mere flesh stuck in a milieu of material reality, projecting spirit upon ourselves. Yes, constructed based on something real (probably), but quite literally our perceptions of reality is a thing we create.
I am currently sitting at a desk, at a job, where I’m participating in a complex fiction in order to maintain a “life” which is based on concepts which didn’t exist before people thought of them. Remember, The Matrix (the original, I mean, only movie with that name) was a metaphor for the fact that the world in which we live is a construct. Everything from ideas about freedom, taxes, society, and even our very language is a thing that exists as a thin film on top of a world made up of primates just moving about eating, fucking, sleeping, killing, being confused, and ultimately returning to the oblivion of death. All of our concerns about ethics, egalitarianism, fairness, a strong economy, and eternal damnation are fantasies by which we are guided for the vast majority of our lives, with little to no attention paid to the fact that at bottom we’re just semi-sentient bits of mostly carbon and water here for a little while, distracted by a world of our own fabrication.
Why do we put so much concern into following rules imposed upon us by a historical structure created by people in power mostly for their benefit? (says the Marxist, perhaps). Why do our managers insist that we show up on work on time for a set of tasks which are not strictly necessary, especially between specific artificial slices of “time”? Why not allow me to sleep in a bit more and do the same amount of work in less time but better rested? All of these rules, while based on some rational motivation, are literally imposed by a set of people who created the whole structure of society over millennia in order to build civilization, and yet we seem to be so oblivious to the veil before our eyes, upon which is projected “the world” and “culture” and “identity.”
All of it could change, in an instant, with a different perspective. And when I understand the absurdity of it all, I most definitely feel some ennui, and I wonder why we are all so enthralled by the narrative we write together. If we were better able to see past these constructions, as a group of people, the less power they would have. And the more we could detach from ourselves, our tribes, and the more absurd the culture wars, in fact wars of all kinds, would seem. And even if one were not willing to eschew all of it in favor of a deep nihilism and simply “lie flat”, I think it would benefit us to detach from our selves, our tribes, and our faction in our cultures from time to time. For one, it will help us better understand our opponents (even if they don’t return the favor), but more importantly, it prevents us from getting in our own way, and maybe will help us figure out who we are and how to better resolve various issues.
In a funny twist of fate, maybe the best way to achieve a group’s goals might be to be less attached to the ideals of said group. Maybe the best way to be religious is to be a heretic.
I listen to, and am a patron of, a podcast called The Scathing Atheist. It’s three white dudes, with the usual addition of one of their wives in a segment called ‘This Week in Misogyny’ (TWIM). it often has original, satirical, music, skits based on the Bible, and funny commentary on news and cultural topics. I recommend it. It’s often hilarious, insightful, and I have been a patron for some years now. And I like the people on the podcast, and generally agree with them.
And, because all the people involved, including me a listener, are human, it’s inevitable that we’ll disagree. I’m not worried about that, in general. As the culture wars rage on, the makers of the podcast have definitely sided wit the SocJus crowd against the other parts of the atheist/skeptical world which has been somewhat, well, skeptical about the excesses of the Socjus aspects of the movement. None of that is unexpected nor is it the problem, in itself
If you’ve been following me, you know that I’m a bit critical of some of the excesses of the SocJus movement, despite being quite pro-social justice. So when they identified their position in this cultural fracturing, it was inevitable that I would disagree with them from time to time, and some of their jokes fell flat to me because of it. But I kept listening because it’s not a threat to me that I hear views I don’t agree with. I understand their perspective (having once shared it), so I’m more than happy to keep being a patron to a quality product.
Yesterday, a specific factor in our divergence became a little clearer to me when listening to their most recent episode, and it got me thinking. Here’s a quote from Noah Lugeons’ diatribe from the episode on April 29th, 2021, in which he’s ranting about the hypocrisy of the Christian Right, who have been canceling things for decades (at least) complaining about so-called “cancel culture”:
You motherfuckers invented cancel culture. Hell, you’d gotten so good at it that Nintendo pre-cancelled itself, as did virtually every other company in the goddamn country. But you abused your power and now when Million Moms complains about the H E double hockey sticks in a Burger King ad, the shareholders pat the advertisers on the back. Being condemned by Christians is a badge of honor if you’re trying to sell shit to the fifty and under crowd.
Of course, the method was never bad, just the target. And now the very people they were trying to shut up have picked up the weapon that they forged themselves and we’re slowly learning how to wield it. But instead of pointing it at the LGBTQ community, we’ve handed it to the LGBTQ community. We’re handing it back to the very groups that have been marginalized by it for all these years. And the more effective we get at it, the more willing they are to pretend the very concept is egregious.
But don’t let it fool you for a second. The instant the pendulum swung the other way, they’d seize the power back and cancel any cartoon with a wizard in it. They’ve never been against “cancel culture”, they’re against the good guys being so damn much better at it than them.
As soon as I heard this, the point where Noah and I diverge became clear. He says “Of course, the method was never bad, just the target,” and my reaction was to think about the nature of how we disagreed. So, today I want to elucidate why I think this is wrong, and why I think those who talk about “accountability” and “consequences” when defending what is often called “cancel culture” (a term which is not especially good, but identifies what I’m talking about, generally, very efficiently) may be missing something which I think is important.
Experience is the best teacher
I was canceled some years ago, and it was genuinely traumatic and instructive for me, in the long run.
It has been said that the usefulness of being canceled is only affective within one’s own segment of the culture. Being considered problematic, dangerous, or disliked by people who have a different worldview than you is, well, expected. So this is a question about those who are part of your social circle, community, or friends groups deciding you are unwelcome to their events and groups. It would be pointless and absurd for the Catholic Church to cancel me, because I’m not a Catholic and I don’t want to be part of their community. But when the only major local polyamory group decides your a problem, it effects your life.
So, I understand the emotional, psychological, and practical consequences of being canceled. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was traumatic (it’s a thing I still talk with my therapist about). The truth is that I am, in fact, responsible for some of the things I was canceled for. The irony is that the people who finally managed to convince the levers of power to be pulled to have me banned were the very same people who were abusive towards me, fabricated circulating rumors about me, and who continue, to this day, to thrive in a toxic world where their own mistakes are painted over and ignored. The fact that many of these people are friendly with Eve Rickert, who is credibly (IMHO) accused of abusive and manipulative behavior towards Franklin Veaux (who, admittedly, has his own things to work on) is just icing on that cake. The fact that she’s now revered by a the community as a victim is…a bit much (for those unfamiliar, think of the situation with Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, which is comparable in some respects)
But these aren’t evil people. They aren’t swamp creatures. I don’t want them canceled. I want them to actually be accountable for their actions, the way I have tried to be accountable for my own. In other words, I want them treated the way they should have treated me; with restorative justice and empathy. I just want them to own up to their mistakes, instead of taking up a weapon of banning, excommunicating, or canceling people who fuck up just as they have, but who were on the wrong side of the rift (from the people with their hands on the controls) when drama ensued.
So when I heard Noah’s diatribe yesterday, something clicked; it became clear that for many people concerned with “justice” and “accountability”, they mean something very different than I do, because they believe that, as Noah overtly claimed, that the method (of canceling) was never bad. It was just being leveraged against the wrong people, and now they are leveraging it against the right people.
This is a terrifying and distressing position to take, because it seems to miss that it’s very very easy to get caught on the wrong side of a dispute and lose a significant part of your life, happiness, and community because of interpersonal drama, and have it framed as being deserved justice, repercussions, and comeuppance for bigots. It’s also distressing because even if you actually are guilty, leveraging such a tool only makes the problem worse for everyone in the long run. There are better alternatives.
You may think that the tool is good because you can use it against the Christian bigot, but the problem is that when purity culture starts declaring people as bigots when the truth gets lost in interpersonal drama, then people get the ban hammer unjustly, and those that wielded it still feel righteous as if they just canceled another deserving bigot. Encouraging the use of this tool is irresponsible and will lead to more people being unjustly treated by more people who will see themselves as righteous in doing so. In short, it’s often difficult to tell the difference between actual bigots and people being smeared by interpersonal drama, especially when a small group of people are really good at messaging and controlling narratives. The situation with Jesse Singal is a recent example of this.
Having experienced canceling, I would never (again) leverage this experience on anyone. It traumatized me, I lashed out, and it took me much longer to actually heal, learn, and become a better person than it would have had the people who demonized me actually tried to talk with me, and enact restorative justice. Now it’s too late, because my ability to trust people is irreparably damaged, and I will spend the rest of my life dealing with the trauma and loss. And a lot of it was based on messaging, narratives, and fabrications that many former friends will continue to believe regardless of the truth of what happened and who I am today.
Canceling can be, in many cases, a form of abuse. And the ability to tell the difference between any potential deserved canceling and an unjust canceling is going to rest on people’s ability to be certain that their righteousness is actually just. Personally, I have seen and experienced just how easy it is to be wrong about this, so I think that framing cancelling as fine, so long as the people actually deserve it, is irresponsible.
Learning the Wrong Lessons from the Right
Some have argued that people in positions of influence and power will often wield such a weapon pre-emptively in order to “control the narrative.” Yes, I think this sometimes happens, and is something to keep in mind when you see people with messaging skills talking a lot. I’ve experienced this directly, and I have seen it in the peripheries of my life in subsequent years.
The take-away is that the loudest person telling their story is not always completely trustworthy. It’s not necessarily that they are lying (they often aren’t), it’s that they are convinced that they are on the right side of justice. Eve Rickert seems to believe this now. Wes Fenza obviously believed this years ago. And I believed this when all that drama happened so long ago (and I now realize I wasn’t completely right about all of that). It’s natural that we see ourselves as the righteous victim, when we feel hurt.
So, when Noah Lugeons draws a parallel between how the Christian Right leveraged their cultural power to cancel certain music, video games, etc and how the “Woke” (another term which is inadequate, but makes my point easily) Left are doing so today, the parallel is telling and, ideally, instructional. It tells us that the victim has learned, from one unjust cultural power, how to wield that same power. But what if such a power should rarely, if ever, be used?
Certain parts of the Progressive (“woke”) Left have started to leverage their new cultural power, and it seems they have convinced themselves that they are just using a useful tool/weapon better than the bigots did and obviously they are doing so justly, unlike the bigots. This is the view of Ibram X. Kendi, who talks about learning to leverage cultural and political power in the name of justice, equity, and anti-racism. And while I liked much of Kendi’s book, How to be an Anti-Racist I think he is wrong in the same way that Noah Lugeons is wrong in his diatribe. I think it’s the same mistake, in fact.
This is all-so-familiar; remember #FTBullies? I do. I was on PZ Myers’ side back then, but in subsequent years I began to understand that the problem was more complicated, and while I still occasionally read PZ’s blog, I also have some peripheral exposure to the people he’s vilified, and his version of events is not without error. I don’t think PZ is a bad person, I think he’s convinced that he’s using his leveraged power for good, and I’m not convinced that he’s right.
It’s very easy to convince yourself that you using the weapon is good because you are the “good guy” (reminds me of the “good guy with a gun” trope). It is so easy to convince yourself that your cause is just. People with good intentions and goals make mistakes and leverage power for their cause, and end up having been wrong and do harm despite their intentions. Those Christians in the 80s and 90s believed they were doing the right thing. I think they were wrong, and I think I have good reasons for that, but what I learn from this is that it was the leveraging of their power where the crime happened, so maybe I should be careful about emulating their actions. Beliefs have consequences, right? Well, they have consequences because they compel actions. A bunch of 1980s Christians who believe a game is evil because it has a devil in the game is wrong, but it’s not a problem until such a person cooperates with like-minded people to have such games banned. The leveraging of that power is where the problem occurs.
So, is the lesson to give that lever to a person with a different, perhaps better, opinion? Or is it that this lever is potentially dangerous, and maybe people should not use it?
Turnabout is fair play?
It is true that many marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ+ community, BIPOC, and so forth have had a rough ride in the world. And it’s definitely the case, IMHO, that cultural, political, and legal changes need to be made to improve their access to legal protection and to facilitate cultural growth towards a more just world. But in the same way that when stopping someone from beating another person with a stick you don’t merely hand the stick to the original victim, it’s not wise to encourage the prior and current victims of our culture to be handed the levers of power which were the efficient cause of the problem (Kendi’s argument). It’s all-too-likely that it will lead to a different kind of injustice because people are fallible and will utilize power badly when they get it, especially if they are ideologically-driven, traumatized, and angry.
The people who wield the power need to be as neutral as possible, and former victims are not usually neutral. Just as it was irresponsible for me to lash out at people who hurt me when I was traumatized, it would be unwise to simply hand over a powerful cultural tool, such as what we refer to as “cancelling” to just anyone, even if many of us think they deserve some justice. The framing of Noah’s diatribe didn’t elucidate this important distinction, and I’m afraid it can be heard as a call to legitimize handing a weapon to victims and leave them alone in a room with their former abusers. I think we need to be more careful and considered than that.
The tools of canceling are not necessarily justice. At worst, they are a tool of abuse. At best, they only push people who make mistakes away where they will likely find common cause with your cultural interlocutors (IOW, other tribes in the culture wars). This gives momentum to the viscious cycle of tribalism and makes our cultural rifts worse. I’ve seen it happen to the atheist/skeptic community, the polyamorous community, and to American culture in general. The culture wars are not a neat divide between the good and the bad, they are a tribalistic fight between different worldviews, none of which are right, completely.
Now, I happen to think some factions tends to be more right than others (and I may be wrong). But because each faction demonizes each other and can’t understand their perspective, they see no problem unleashing any cultural weapon against them, which is what Noah Lugeons seems to be arguing for here. This is classic dehumanization, and it’s most definitely not humanism. As a result, wise leaders and influencers need to be cautious about encouraging use of certain tools, such as canceling, because it’s so easy to think your cause is just when it very well might not be. Or, even if it is, it’s possible that cancellation might not be a good tool to begin with, and your cause loses it’s righteousness by utilizing it.
Rationality Rules, a youtuber who has faced the cancellation cannon before and learned from his mistakes (again, IMO), makes a powerful argument as to why the AHA should not have revoked Richard Dawkins’ 1996 Humanist of the Year award. I’m no fan of Dawkins (I find him to be incorrigible, personally), but I think RR is correct in his analysis here. And his points are relevant to this issue because RR’s perspective is consistent with one where we are more cautious about when and where to use the power to cancel.
What about the truly awful?
So, I know many of you are thinking, ok, maybe you have a point. But what about the actual bigots, irredeemable assholes, unrepentant abusers, etc?
What about, say David Silverman? Or James Lindsay? Or whomever your personal bogeyman is; what about them?
There is obviously a point at which, in trying to help someone, reason with them, etc you will decide that you no longer want that person in your community. We want safe communities, after all. I’m not saying that this is easy, and I certainly don’t have the answers. But I’m worried because I’m seeing too many situations where people are considered bigots, racists, etc where I just don’t agree that the label fits. And, for many, that’s where I lose them, and now I’ve just condemned myself, to them, as one of the bigots. I don’t know what to do with that, because I don’t think they are right, and I don’t know if I can convince them otherwise. All I ask is don’t take my community away merely on the basis of disagreement.
I think James Lindsay is an interesting example to discuss here, and it’s also relevant because his name has been one of jokes by the same podcast in recent weeks as well. You see, James Lindsay has at least one video of himself with swords which he put online. The video I saw was…ridiculous, and I get why people are laughing at him. Fine, laugh away, I guess. I did, too, if I’m being honest. And if you pay any attention to Lindsay’s social media (which I no longer do), he doesn’t seem to care. Cool.
And many of his political opinions are, IMO, poorly thought out. He’s kind of an asshole. He’s convinced he’s right, he’s arrogant, and I don’t think I would like him much, personally. And yet I read his book (co-authored with Helen Pluckrose, who I like much more, and whose organization Counter Weight the same podcast has laughed at a few times).
Now, I thought the book was interesting. It gave me some more context about the origin of much of the intellectual foundations for so-called ‘woke’ views about equity and racism. I realize that most people who are in favor of equity and anti-racism have little to no awareness of these philosophical underpinnings, and I don’t think most of the worst examples from these postmodernist/poststructuralist writers, included in Cynical Theories, would reflect most actual people’s views who ascribe to these ideas. Thus, while I do agree that some of the philosophical underpinnings of the thought leaders are not especially convincing to me, I am not willing to demonize or throw out the entirety of the Progressive Left’s social justice cause because I’m worried about the fringes and the excesses of that community (although I think it’s important to be able to be critical of them, when they are wrong). And thus, I think James Lindsay is ridiculous, but also not completely wrong.
I read his book. I tried to take him seriously. I actually paid attention to the content behind the dancing clown with swords, and I think he has a few important things to add to the conversation, even if I find him personally idiotic and ridiculous. Like I said, I much prefer Helen, who I know the Scathing Atheist crew also find absurd and laugh at. Like I said, we differ in some areas. Perhaps The Scathing Atheist crew has actual good intellectual reasons to dismiss Cynical Theories and Counter Weight, and I have not been following them closely enough to know if any of them have been more clear about why they find them so bad, but all I’ve heard, on their podcast, is laughter (it is a comedy podcast, so I am not saying they should have an in-depth critique, only that they do, in fact, point and laugh.). Noah has said, if I remember right, that James Lindsay has asked to be on the show. They refused, Noah joked that he’s be willing to debate him (he seemed to imply it would not be much of a debate, but I am unaware of what his reasons are).
In brief, I don’t think James Lindsay is completely wrong, even if I might find him mostly wrong and an ass. Will I go out of my way to invite him onto any platform? No, I will not. Should people laugh at him? meh, whatever. Would I be willing to use whatever cultural power I have (which is almost none) to convince people to dismiss, de-platform, or demonize him? Nope. Because that’s a tool I don’t think should be used in most situations. I don’t want to add momentum to the cyclone of the vicious cycle of tribalism and enmity causing more misunderstanding, demonization, and general shittiness than it seems to be adding justice.
If you want justice, you absolutely need to give it a strong foundation of authenticity, fairness, and truth. You need to intentionally burst your own cultural bubble. You need to avoid tribalism. Noah Lugeons, who I think is quite smart, funny, and worth paying attention to has an opinion I disagree with, and all I want to do is add to that conversation. There will, undoubtedly, be people who consider his opinion dangerous wokeness gone mad (as Lindsay would probably say). Fine. I think they are wrong too (even if I understand their feeling, underneath their arguments).
I just think that insofar as we are going to use cancellation as a tool in our culture, we need to be more careful with it, and not frame it as the good, morally correct side using a weapon their enemies used, but doing so better and for the side of justice. To paraphrase John McWhorter, I think that’s a bit religious of an attitude.
I am not sure, honestly. There are truly awful people out there, though they are few. I’m not sure who they are, but I have my biases.
David Silverman is, IMO, odious but I leave open the possibility that he might say something I agree with or maybe eventually grow and change. I will likely have to hear this second-hand because I no longer follow him. Does this mean I’ve canceled him, at least from my own life? Perhaps. Do I think people who will never take him seriously again are wrong and being trigger-happy with their willingness to cancel? Maybe. Do I think he’s necessarily an evil bigot who has written himself off from good society forever, as some seem to have done?
No, I don’t.
Who should be canceled? This is a thing I am still thinking about. I don’t have any certainty here. I’m just worried that some people have taken on a self-view as being righteous, and I’m skeptical of anyone who sees themselves, or their cause, that way. I’ve seen too many people overplay their hands and end up overcompensating, getting caught up in power, etc to trust anyone with any powerful tool, such as “cancellation.” Therefore, I’m opposed to what we call “cancel culture,” even where I might think I’m right and the person I might seek to cancel is obviously a bigot.
I’m merely suggesting more caution at very least. But otherwise, Noah’s diatribes are great (I have volumes of them at home on my bookshelf), and I encourage you all to give them a listen. He’s great with language and has made me chuckle many times. So no, I’m not cancelling Noah Lugeons.
I cannot be the only person who, when in moments of mental turmoil, fantasizes about leveling some ideological opponent with a brilliant quip which shuts them up. I believe this experience is somewhat common among humans.
But lately this unhealthy exercise has become less satisfying, and I think it might be worthwhile to deconstruct why; mostly for my own sake, but perhaps, dear reader, you might glean some understanding (whether of me, yourself, or some potential universal humanity).
The more righteous I feel, the more devastating such quips, which never seem to come at the time they are needed, tend to be. But as I continue to grow as a thinker, the more I am certain that certainty isn’t all that laudable a goal. And in recent months, I have noticed that I catch myself, while formulating some quip, retorting back at myself in the process. It softens my emotional satisfaction, and robs me of the catharsis of which such ruminations are capable.
That is, I have begun to value my ability to see myself from the point of view of my interlocutor and see how the devastating verbal barrage of truth was blunter (double entendre intended) than I anticipated. The next thing I know I’ve discovered nuances and depths of uncertainty I wasn’t able to see in the blinding light of certainty.
It’s not completely unlike the experience of realizing, mid-argument, that your significant other is actually right. In the moment, you are too taken-aback and still too emotional to admit it, and perhaps you dig in because of this, but it changes the experience nonetheless. Anyone who frequents Twitter might have some understanding of this phenomenon, as well.
Idealism and certainty
Back in the halcyon days of 2012 or so, back when I was idealistic and more certain, I found myself in the lap of the burgeoning movement we now think of as the woke mentality. I saw it as progress, and even recognized it as a form of the same PC culture I saw in the 1990s. I saw it as the world finally waking up to certain realities and I saw it as a good thing. I became woke (even if a lot of it wasn’t really new to me) before the term fully took hold.
I was endlessly amused by memes which excoriated the people who couldn’t or wouldn’t see The TruthTM, and enjoyed those in my orbit lambasting those who tried to resist with their own biting criticisms. When blogs I read wouldn’t follow along, I often left them behind and enjoyed seeing other blogs mocking them. Nothing like a good dunk, to use a current phrase.
An example of this would be Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, which I used to read regularly until he started to chafe at some of what was called, at the time, 3rd Wave Feminism, Feminatzis, etc. While I agreed with Coyne’s view of science in the face of anti-science rhetoric from evolution-skeptics and so forth, I found his anti-feminism sometimes to be off-putting, and sided, at the time, with PZ Myers in those blog wars. There was even a time when I had drinks with PZ, Amanda Marcotte, and other like-minded people (in PZ’s hotel room, no less) at a convention during these times. I was part of a movement, it felt like, and it felt good. For someone with seriously debilitating insecurity, it was tremendously validating.
This was after the days of Elevatorgate, where the rift within the atheist/skeptic community foreshadowed the coming larger cultural, political, and ideological divides which came to dominate much of everything. I saw my side, the side of the coming liberal utopia of awakened skeptics, as being attacked by dim-witted, privileged, and clueless gobshites who were simply too dense or self-interested to hop on the truth train. I saw the red pill movement, which took shape not long after all of this, as angry, resentful, and hateful people who were very obviously wrong. It felt good to be on the right side of justice, and to have a set of smart, clever, and devastatingly witty compatriots ready and willing to throw a quip towards our enemies.
And we felt superior.
An Inception of Awakenings
In the next few years, I went through (metaphorical, of course) Hell. Much of it was my own doing, but what wasn’t mine was a trauma which came from realizing that what I thought were wise friends and allies were, in many cases, toxic, abusive, and dishonest fanatics for a cause which I no longer could support.1
But, as I have said previously, I wasn’t red-pilled. I reject their movement as well and I’m not going to be joining the likes of David Silverman2 anytime soon. And if, after reading this, you think that he and I are of a similar ilk, then you will have failed to understand my larger point here, and have mistook me leaving one set of toxic ideas for joining another. This cultural war doesn’t have merely two sides, and I don’t think any major faction is always wrong (no, not even David Silverman and those who side with him are always wrong, even when they are making asses of themselves).
But it does feel like, in some sense, that I woke up more than once, as if I’m rising through layers of bad dreams, never sure if this, right now, is finally reality. I’m not sure if the top is still spinning.
And in a sense I do realize that this reality, this set of perceptions, beliefs, etc to which I ascribe some level of objective truth, is still a Kantian dream from which I may never wake. Because if our view of the world, viewing ourselves as entities which see ourselves as entities because we have an entity category built into our minds, then it is the case that we are all trapped within an inescapable box completely separated from actual reality, and then there is no waking up. There is no being right or having the truth, there is just an endless process of wittling away nonsense with better questions and methodologies for separating nonsense from tentative objective reality.
Which would mean that thinking of yourself as woke is just, indeed, a kind of spiritualism or religion; just another idea of another world beyond ours. Just another form of being asleep, as it were, but believing, just like every other ideology, that you have the truth. It’s undeserved righteousness, just like everyone else.
In the vein of seeing this in religious terms, I’m looking forward to John McWhorter’s upcoming book, where he promises to explore the idea of wokeism as a new cult, religion, or something of the like (it hasn’t been published yet, but his thoughts on the subject to date seem consistent with such ideas). As a student of religion, culture, and someone who has shifted ideological frameworks myself, it seems clear to me that most ideologies behave in similar ways to religions, insofar as they create pious followers who see their enlightenment in relation to others’ obfuscated perspectives. In other words, all true believers see themselves as woke relative to those uninitiated. Par for the course, in terms of people.
The New Meta-Narrative
To clarify what all that jargon above was about; I’m skeptical that any of us have the truth, but I think there is a truth; it’s just that we may never know what all of it is. So, if anyone is claiming to have the truth they are delusional, wrong, or lying to some degree. And what bothers me about the woke isn’t their worldview. In fact, I largely agree with their goals, some of their beliefs, and don’t think most of them are acting in bad faith. What worries me is their tendency towards an un-willingness to hear criticism without responding with some version of a “Kafka Trap,” which is to say that any criticism is treated as evidence of that which the criticism is aimed.
The most notorious example of this is the idea, and the book of the same name, of White Fragility. This is an idea which essentially states that any push-back against the claim that I (for example), as a white person, am racist (or at least contribute to the support of systemic racism) is evidence of some fragility within myself. It is a claim which the true believers believe has no valid counter. In other words, it’s an assertion, and it is believed with a kind of faith, and to reject it is to deny The Truth.TM In other words, heresy.
It is akin to being told that there is an original sin (racism, in this case) of which we are all subject in one way or another, and we need to repent. But there is no ridding oneself of this sin, but only to keep “doing the work”, perpetually. We light-skinned humans exist in sin, or as a racist and we must confess our sin and seek forgiveness (which will never come). It’s right out of the playbook of religion, so perhaps it takes an atheist contrarian to see it clearly.
This is not to say that the existence of systemic racism has no merit; I, in fact, do think that there are systemically racist policies, cultural norms, etc which are a significant problem which must be addressed. However, the claim that such racism is ubiquitous and inescapable is a claim with a different level of scope than the fact that it exists at all. Further, conflating the criticism of the ubiquity of systemic racism with it’s nonexistence3 is a very common ploy used in the back-and-forth between interlocutors of the cultural conversation going on these days.
And considering my history with insecurity and depression, feeling guilty is sort of my go-to feeling. It took some amount of therapy and perhaps even wisdom to learn that this is a manipulation, and one that is all too easily inculcated onto Left-leaning white people who are currently willing to accept this as the truth about racism in our culture, whether out of fear, guilt, or cynical playing along to not get on the wrong side of the woke police. And I also understand that the recognition that one is being manipulated is one which causes reactionary and defensive behavior. Many people’s reactions against this idea are overkill, such as James Lindsay’s decision to vote for Trump because he fears the woke takeover of the Democratic party, which he sees worst than the threat of a second term for Trump. I find this an unreasonable conclusion, but one that at least makes sense to me because I have a similar reaction to being manipulated. I, however, am not ready to jettison the entire Left, including the current Democratic party, for the sake of a fear of it being led by authoritarian Woke Leftists with some bad ideas.
That is, many people who react to the woke with an overcompensation (support for Trump, intentionally trying to trigger woke people, etc) believe they are seeing wokeism as a new meta-narrative to replace the meta-narratives of the patriarchal, hierarchical, sexist, racist, etc world in which the woke say that we live. The irony of this is (as Cynical Theories points out) that wokeism grew out of a set of Postmodernist philosophical ideas which sought to deconstruct, transcend, or expose meta-narratives, only to later be used to create a new one out of a goal to achieve social justice.
But if the current SocJus movement it’s based on some bad ideas, then if it succeeds in its goals then all it will do is replace it with a new form of injustice, ultimately. At least that’s what many who are critical of the woke mentality believe, and why they oppose people like Robin D’Angelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and their allies in the attempt to create new policies based on woke ideas. Such critics of SocJus wokeism believe that their methods and ideas won’t succeed in creating social justice at all. I think they have a point; it will solve some things, perhaps, but it creates new problems. And the unwillingness of the woke to hear criticism, while understandable as a human response, will be the factor that will make it a new orthodoxy to be opposed once it actually has real power. If the woke would allow skepticism into their ranks, this could be avoided. But they treat criticism as evidence of people being racist, sexist, etc and worthy of being ostracized, ignored, and considered problematic. Therefore, many people are legitimately worried about this phenomenon.
Thus there are so many people quipping at each other, and the most vociferous quippers are the ones least likely to consider that their side is in error. And it reminds me of what it felt like to be surrounded by such a righteous, witty, and insular tribe. I felt like I was part of something, but what I didn’t realize until later was that I was surrounded by many toxic people. The point is that being part of a toxic culture doesn’t feel toxic because even abusive, toxic, and hateful people are capable of great affection, kindness, and loyalty to those inside their tribe.
And this is why I’m now suspicious of any tribe which does not actively seek skepticism, criticism, and ideological challenge from inside or outside that community, which is to say the overwhelmingly vast majority of human groups.
Seeking ideological purity creates an insular bubble where ideas are never challenged, which then creates the very meta-narrarive which the Theories which are the basis of their woke ideologies were originally supposed to correct for. They are, essentially, shooting themselves in the foot because they remove anyone who doesn’t bend the knee. So it’s understandable that even those on the Left who don’t fully agree stay quiet out of fear of losing friends, social connections, or even their jobs. I’m lucky to be in a position where I will, at most, lose a few acquaintances (already have) but my livelihood is not in jeopardy.
So, what I mean to say is that the metaphor of “woke” is especially bad and problematic (I’m taking the word back), because it is self-righteous and entitled especially because it considers criticism to be evidence for their worldview. And this was the basis for how and why I no longer considered myself one of the woke.
The key for them to understand is that I didn’t then join the opposition, because they are also largely toxic. I merely found myself in the no-man’s land between trenches, and have discovered that neither trench looks inviting as a safe space.
A Book Recommendation
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay deal with these concepts, related to wokeness, Critical Theory, and the history of these ideas, in their recent book, and corresponding website, Cynical Theories. I’m recommending these resources not because I agree with all of their conclusions, but because they expose many of the problems with the philosophical underpinnings of “Theory,” upon which much of the current woke mentality is based. Also, I do so despite the fact that I find much of Lindsay’s tone and conclusions (outside of the book, primarily) off-putting and often incorrect themselves. Pluckrose I tend to agree with much more often, in terms of her public pronouncements, but regardless of their differing political opinions, their criticism of Critical Theory is important to be aware of.
The gist of the problem is that the philosophical ancestors of woke ideologies are largely anti-science, anti-rational, and are most-definitely anti-liberal (in the philosophical sense not necessarily the political one, though it can be that too). Things such as evidence, logic, skepticism, and other important tools of criticism are denounced and replaced with power dynamics which seem to be cynically utilized for the sake of control and political expediency, which is the very problem I think we should be concerned with, not emulating.
And with the recent rise of woke ideas taking over much of academia, the corporate world, and other parts of society and culture, there is a sense that you are either on-board with justice or you are deplorable; you are with them or against them. It’s too simplistic a dichotomy and it ignores those who are for social justice but not in the way that many of the Woke Left are trying to achieve it. The problem is that most people don’t know that there is such a distinction, and so they conflate people like me, who are critical of much of their methods, with the red-pilled/Alt-Right/Trump-supporting/NAZI-sympathizing/socialist-hating and actually racist and sexist part of our culture which opposes the woke for equally bad reasons as those who support it. I am not Ben Shapiro.
I, and many others out there, don’t have a political or cultural home among the two major sides of this conflict, and we see ourselves pilloried from both ends as being on the other. People who I listen to, read, or both (whether it be the Fifth Column podcast, Andrew Sullivan, Blocked and Reported (Jesse Singal and the “transphobe” Katie Herzog), Coleman Hughes, or the aforementioned John McWhorter) are hated by both sides of this tribal cultural war because they don’t bend the knee to any orthodoxy. I don’t always agree with these people (I don’t always agree with myself), but I appreciate people who are willing to say what they think and challenge orthodoxies on all fronts. And somehow that’s bad, because one is either racist or anti-racist (says Kendi), with no possibility of being neither. That’s ridiculous.
Dreaming of Being Awake, but Still Snoring
The woke ideology is not enlightened, even where it makes good points and is right. They take good ideas and goals and wrap them in emotion to sell them to well-meaning people who want the world to be better than it is. And if you criticize them, you are considered a heretic and labeled as problematic. The whole cancel culture thing is really about how people are afraid to speak up when they disagree, because they know the potential interpersonal, social, and professional costs. The wars going on in many media outlets, between the woke and those who disagree, is going to be an ongoing conflict for years to come.
The point is that I believe that much of the woke world uses ideas such as standpoint theory (which is an interesting, and I think valid, set of ideas worthy of study in general) incorrectly; that is to say too broadly. All ideas have to be subject to scrutiny by any person who is able to parse the logical, rational, or empirical factors related to it. And no (again), this isn’t a form of supporting white, western, supremacy itself.
Postmodern/poststructural/woke ideas are not automatically and universally bad, but they are, I think, used too broadly or liberally (lol) than I think they have epistemologically earned. I frankly don’t think that most of the people policing ideas out there in the Left are sufficiently trained or (frankly) interested in logic, skepticism, and science to wield such a weapon correctly, and so we end up with a loud minority of people seeking justice but creating different forms of, probably unintentionally, injustice. Good intentions, bad execution.
And they do it for a quite human reason; they are caught up in the emotion of the movement. They feel empowered and important, being a part of a set of ideas which could make the world better. That is, their goals are laudable. They aren’t bad people, they are just people with ideas which don’t always survive scrutiny, and like many ideological movements before them, they are overzealous and undeservedly self-righteous.
I understand it because I experience this same set of feelings, thoughts, and a sense of belonging as they do when I come up with those zingers in the shower, on a walk, or unable to sleep. This is a fairly universal human experience, but the difference is that the ideas we want to defend, criticize, or even to expand upon are ideas that are stuck in a whirlwind of historical, cultural, and ideological chaos which is really difficult, if not impossible, to pin down. At different times ideas, even within small pockets of culture, have relative power. Right now, there is a set of ideas about social justice, those that we refer to as wokeness, which are on the rise in terms of influence and power in our culture. And the irony is that the ideology of anti-oppression is now in a role where, at least on small scales, is acting much like an oppressive force upon groups and individuals.
Sure, on a large scale, they are still punching up, but in small ways, in small interactions, it occasionally punches down. Ibram X. Kendi describes this, in his book How to be and Anti-Racist, as the future discrimination that we need:
The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination
Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist
Kendi views this as righting an historical wrong; a continuous punching-up until the scales are even. But, that’s the thing about policy, cultural mores, and ideologies; they take on a life of their own and become the new mores. A goal of equity is one thing, but if the method one utilizes to attain it becomes the new normal, it won’t stop once the goal is attained, but it will still operate, as if through mere momentum, to punch in the same direction once equity is attained.
The problem with discrimination, oppression, and injustice in general is not who it’s being done to, but that it’s being done. And I don’t trust any potential amendment, policy, or moral idea to right a wrong by use of the very same tools which created the problem in the first place; stopping an attacker with a bat isn’t made better by taking the bat and handing it to the original victim. That’s mere revenge porn. Again, an understandable and very human reaction, but not a just one.
Here’s the point. People in control now believe they are right. People fighting them think they are right. People think they are right. But they can’t all be right, and in fact it’s quite likely that none of them are fully right. So, shouldn’t our highest values as carriers of ideologies, rather than to defensively parry criticism, be to actively self-criticize? Not that we have to accept criticism from any idiot on Twitter or Facebook comment section, but to already be doing it yourself? To do so, you need to take your serious critics seriously.
Shouldn’t we be questioning our most sacred beliefs and values, and find the weaknesses of our arguments, before some clueless bro points it out to you? It’s our instinct to defend our tribes, of course. But we need to, if we’re going to survive this infancy as a species, find a way to stop grouping ourselves based upon ideology/orthodoxy if we want to find truth, justice, or any solutions which will actually work in the long run. It’s too easy to get caught up in interpersonal fights where we defend our friends and attack our enemies regardless of the strength of our arguments. We need to do better, collectively.
I yearn for a day where open criticism will not result in ostracism from communities and then be thought of as merely removing problematic people. The freedom to criticize exists, and of course nobody has to pay attention, but dismissing criticism which points to your ideological foundations as invalid or a source of the problem merely makes your beliefs sacrosanct, which no idea should be. The good ideas keep surviving criticism for a reason, and don’t need your defense by removing critics from your club.
Because actual skepticism, rationality, logic, and critical thinking has never been the dominant meta-narrative of any system which has power, despite what some have said; the colonial, Western, white world is not one based in rationality and logic any more than any other group (yes, this is a claim which derives from Theory). Those things are available to all groups but rarely applied universally. Such tools are usually used as a means to reinforce our biases and destroy our foes (say, with witty quips), but rarely to question the strength of our own ideological foundations.
It’s sort of like how the strongest criticisms of any religion comes from other religions, but it takes an atheist to point at them all and say, “hey, you are all incorrect here.” So, while it might take a deplorable Trumpster to point out issues with wokeism, it takes those of us yeeted out of the Left to point to both said Trumpster and Woke Cultist and say “y’all are all wrong, so let’s actually start listening to each other and then maybe we can figure this shit out, finally,” while being quite aware that both of them will dunk on us with a witty quip, and continue to dismiss us and each other.
Question even your most sacred values and beliefs, and not just those of your ideological enemies.
 I will clarify, here, that the hurt I also caused them, and our subsequent enmity, was not the reason I ended up on another side of ideological rifts, but being separate from them did finally allow me to reflect more clearly on ideas I previously cleaved to from an emotional distance; a process which took some years.
 If you haven’t been following the ravings of David since his various ousters, exposure of his awful behavior, and subsequent leaving of the Left, suffice it to say he’s become anti-woke in a way I will not endorse. That is to say that it’s possible to be critical of wokeness without becoming a snarling, angry, resentful idiot.
 And yes, there are woke critics who go this far in their critique. I disagree with such critics.
There is a newish metaphor in our culture, appropriated from a movie which is now old enough to drink alcohol, legally, in the US.
In a world where a dominant power has taken hold, there is need for a resistance. Of course, it’s technically possible to live in such a world and not see, or perhaps not agree, that such a resistance is necessary. Also, depending on your role in such a world, you might be the rational voice against radical insanity or you could be a “literal NAZI”.
Also, we may disagree about which power has taken hold. And we may both be…right? We may all have solid arguments, at least. The truth is further away.
Such are the interesting times in which we live.
Ok, so I’m obviously making a reference to The Matrix, and the newish metaphor is red-pilling, but what’s my point?
Well, that’s complicated. Which means it’s too long for even a tweet thread. Which means I’m totes using antiquated technology here to influence anyone. I gave up influencing anyone years ago, so this is mostly for me, the few who still bother reading, and perhaps for a future that might survive this historical period (and given last night’s presidential debate, the likelihood of “history” surviving the present is decomposing).
Let’s start here. I have not been red-pilled.
In fact, I have watched the various red-pilling of people over the last several years with a combination of curiosity, horror, and amusment. It’s not that they are completely wrong, it’s that they have fallen for one of the most common human failings; binary thinking. And despite what Eve Sedgwick might have you think, the concept of binary thinking is not a creation of recent history, related to homosexual discrimination. In fact, binary thinking might be one of the fundamental physiological constructs of how we perceive the world.
Those who have been red-pilled are, in many cases, people who fail to understand that because one side makes a mistake, it doesn’t mean its antithesis is right. Haven’t y’all read your Hegel? Or even Marx, for that matter?
So, I started thinking. What if, instead of red-pilling, I were to start talking about “purple-pilling”? But that’s crass, and still folds into our analysis the problematic 2-party system of intellectual thought. OK, so “black-pilling”? Well, that opens up way too many cans of worms, so no. White-pilling is right out.
And then it came to me; fuck all the pills. Stop taking fucking pills. Stop adhering to parties, ideologies, and tribes. Because all that happens is that we end up pilloring each other. And that leaves us, metaphorically of course, bloody red.
I’ve been reading about things like Critical Race Theory. I’ve been reading about the rise of Christian Nationalism with the Trump administration. I’ve been re-reading Kendi’s How to be and Anti-Racist. I’ve also been reading science fiction, but that falls outside of this, so nevermind. I have too many thoughts, conflicting thoughts, and I have no answers.
I’ve been listening. But perhaps the problem is that I have been listening to the wrong people? But, again, which are the wrong people?
If I were to travel to the future (and this is where I pull in my sci-fi reading) and seek out which of the cultural meta-narratives won, would that help me resolve my dilemma about truth?
Oh, wait, I missed a step. I still think that truth is a thing which is real. I’m not sure it’s attainable, but I still think it’s real, so perhaps I’m biased by the fact that I’m still attached to a “Western” and “Colonial” meta-narrative of objective (I would call it inter-subjective) scientific truth. It’s, of course, probabilistic and not absolute, but it’s still truthy science. #RealTruthScienceBitches
Ok, so if I traveled to the future I would probably be able to determine who “won” the culture wars, but just like a person who traveled from, say, 100AD to 1200 AD, the fact that Christianity (or some severely altered version of it) “won” wouldn’t address the truthfulness of it as a philosophical position.
What I’m saying is that I still care about truth, and I’m not convinced that any of us, on the various sides of the culture wars, have it. And I’m afraid that we are setting aside, for cynical reasons, the methodologies we use to differentiate between truth and not-truth.
And I think that we all need to step back from ourselves and ask whether 1) we care and 2) if we cared it would matter in this media environment.
So, apparently the big online bruhaha is about math.
I ran into this on twitter today:
I’m not a mathematician, but I did take some advanced mathematics while in high school, and have a sufficient understanding of math to understand what, I think, is happening here.
What I think is happening here is two separate things. The first is a subtle point about the fact that we use a standardized mathematics which is somewhat arbitrary, and we could use a different kind of mathematics if we chose to. The idea is that the standard mathematics is often smuggled in as a part of a larger cultural program attached to a system of “Western” oppression. We’ll get to that later.
The 2nd thing is that some people on the Left/Progressive side of things, the super-woke, are picking a fight with logic and truth, as we can hear here:
Now, I don’t feel a need to address this because those who don’t understand that logic, rational thinking, and skepticism are the best tools we have to discern truth from untruth are not those who I feel like I’m ever going to reach. Because I’m not sure what other tool we could use to make distinctions between ideas, and make sense. If you don’t think that’s possible, then we have nothing left to talk about. If you straight up don’t care about truth, well….
If your whole project is that everything is about power dynamics (because “truth” is a Western lie), then you are just using the same tool that those “oppressors” have used which makes you no better than them. The key here is that those in power only utilize truth as a means, not as an end in itself. But if you don’t use it at all, then you will lose. So if you reject logic and the truth, and only seek to utilize the levers of persuasion, deception, compulsion etc to gain power, then you have become the monster you were fighting.
Because if and when your narrative becomes the dominant narrative or political source of power, you will be the same as they are now. Flipping who has the reigns of cynical power doesn’t make it any less cynical nor oppressive, it just switches who is the one in control. And if you claim that your narrative won’t be oppressive, then I suggest you learn some history, because I don’t believe you.
Some of you are already oppressive before the coup is complete, after all. If you actually gain real power, you don’t think this won’t get worse? Again, I don’t believe you. Have you read about the reign of Terror or the Cultural Revolution in China? Revolutions against entrenched power rarely avoid being the oppressor themselves. Hi, there, Polydelphia.
I’m interested in breaking that cycle of power and oppression, not handing the controls to someone else. If you don’t care about truth, then I don’t care if you are on the Left or the Right; we are at odds, and I will fight you (philosophically, ideally). The enemy here is authoritarianism, not whether you are woke or deplorable.
If you don’t know what code switching is, well, go read about it. The gist is that different dialects and cultural groups use different rules for language, and people who move in and out of different communities get used to speaking in different ways to different groups. A mild example is how a teacher might speak to their students in a different way than how they speak to their friends at the bar.
A more common, American, example is from this fantastic movie, Sorry to Bother You. Many Black Americans quite commonly switch between modes of speech depending upon who their interlocutors are. Here’s a clip for context:
You get it.
But what the hell does this have to do with math? Well, allow me to, once again, talk about Ludwig Wittgenstein. Ol’ Witty, as I call him in my head, was among the most important thinkers of the 20th century, and added a number of important ideas to philosophy, linguistics, and to the proper uses of fireplace pokers.
Among his more important ideas was that of language-games (also, see this). This is particularly important here because the concept of the language-game was created as part of a self-criticism of Wittgenstein’s earlier attempt to make language precise and purely logical, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), of which his later Philosophical Investigations (1953, posthumously) was a criticism. The Philosophical Investigations includes the introduction of the concept of a language-game, which was a brilliant criticism of his earlier attempt to perfect language into a precise, logical, system.
In other words, Wittgenstein was so brilliant that he not only helped start a philosophical movement with hist first book (Logical Positivism, through inspiration of the so-called ‘Vienna Circle’), but he refuted it himself later with a better piece of literature, revolutionizing the philosophy of language in the process.
In short, the idea of a language-game is that when we use language, we are not building a logical structure but rather we are indicating things with sounds, symbols, gestures, etc and defining meaning through use. Words don’t literally represent reality in a precise logical way, it merely indicates things and we are able to do this in a number of ways which are sensible insofar as they are effective. Thus, there are different ways to indicate a thought, intention, etc which vary according to what rules we come up with. Those rules are somewhat arbitrary (although probably not infinitely so) and differ from language to language, group to group.
Language doesn’t require mathematical or formal-logical precision to function, and the attempt to create a language which is logically precise (or the similar goal of Bertrand Russel and Alfred North Whitehead around the turn of the 20th century, to perfect mathematics; Russell of course mentored Wittgenstein at the latter parts of WWI) is a fool’s errand, as Wittgenstein demonstrates after first attempting to do precisely that in his first work, the Tractatus.
But mathematics needs some level of precision to be meaningful. When I say that 2+2=4, I am assuming a set of meanings to each of the symbols in that string. Depending on what meanings they all have, that statement is either true, false, or meaningless. So we humans came up with a standardized set of meanings and functions for those symbols in order to have a shared mathematics which we can use to figure out problems related to physics, engineering, etc.
And if you have different arbitrary standards of math, it’s quite possible to code switch between them, if you wanted to. But what if you reject the premise altogether?
Different ways of knowing?
And this is where the people saying 2+2=5 come in, and say things like ‘if we had different meanings for those terms, 2+2=5 could be true.’ Sure it could. So what? ‘Well,’ they may say, ‘why is the dominant standard the standard?’
Why can’t we use different, non-Western and colonial ways of knowing?
What other ways? If you had another way of knowing, how would you compare it? what criteria would you use to compare them against one-another? Wouldn’t, say, practical knowledge, technology, and evidence be useful here? What if you also reject those?
Have you seen this?
This may be the fringe, but it is not that rare of a perspective. I run into worldviews such as this on occasion where I live. A rejection of skepticism, science, rationality, and logic are fairly common among those who are criticizing the Western/colonial system of oppression. We have to contend that this is part of the narrative being promulgated alongside anti-racist, anti-fascist, and anti-capitalist ideology (all of which I support in themselves). This is what I’m fighting against in the Left/Progressive world currently. This is why I still identify as a liberal, and am worried about some of the “woke” Left.
But, of course, not all of the Left agrees with this. Sometimes, Lefties are just trying to expand our worldviews about perspective, meaning, etc without actually throwing away logic and truth altogether. Sometimes there is just a point about how math is complicated and often can have different rules.
Listen, you are free to use whatever meanings, standards, or rules for whatever math you desire. You are free to use different “contexts” if you like. But what do you mean by different contexts? Do you mean that you are merely redefining the terms, or maybe just one of them? OK, feel free, but then you are just switching the code you are using to communicate. You don’t have to use the standard meanings, but then you are just sewing confusion by switching mathematical systems without declaring so.
The standards don’t exist to oppress you, they exist so we can share a common set of meanings so we know what other people are talking about. It’s merely a means to make communication possible. Switching the rules is not giving a finger to “the man”, it’s merely going to make you misunderstood. Further, the oppressor (what we used to call “the man”) isn’t oppressing you with logic; they are oppressing you with cynical levers of power and using logic as a tool because logic works at achieving goals because its logical. The goal for power is the source of oppression, not its efficient cause of rational thinking.
As I said above, language does not always require precision. If I’m hanging with my friends around my neighborhood, on the porch or otherwise, and they code switch into a different set of syntax or grammar, I can follow along because doing so becomes obvious in context. I can literally hear the difference in the language and grok the meaning in a number of ways they express it. But if they suddenly decided, in their head, that “tree” meant “trolley,” this is more than code-switching; it is arbitrarily swapping usual meanings to no purpose but to confuse.
If we all decided, perhaps as a private joke, that when I say “tree” I mean trolley, then this is our private code, our private language-game. Perhaps it has an origin in a joke or something that means something to us. To us, in such a circumstance, this would then makes sense and would be clear communication. But it has to arise in a context which this meaning becomes clear through use, not mere unstated fiat. That is, it has to arise organically from context, use, and agreement before its meaningful.
Similarly, if someone simply types “2+2=5” without any context, there is no attempt to indicate the code switch or standard alteration here. I have no way of knowing that you have switched to some alternate or non-standard mathematical system. If, hypothetically, this was a reference to some private joke, in-group code switch, or some obscure non base-10 mathematics we use together, then we’re fine because we understand what was meant.
Again, you are free to use whatever terms in whatever way you want, and utilize whatever mathematics, symbols, etc which you like. However, if your point is that we shouldn’t have to accept the dominant standardization, the dominant code, because that code is part of the western system of cultural oppression, well….
Then we need to have a conversation about that.
But before I do that, I want to make something clear; if the point in saying 2+2=5 is merely to draw attention to the fact that some standard exists and that it is arbitrary, and that it’s possible to see the world using different meanings and perspectives, then fine. I find that impractical, but there is not (necessarily) any philosophical or logical error happening in doing so.
Unless, of course, you just reject logic or truth altogether, as I made reference to above. In that case, we have nothing to talk about.
So, what might we have to talk about?
The West, oppression, and rational thinking
There is no doubt that “The West” has committed atrocities of many scales upon the world. This set of cultures does not have the monopoly on such atrocities, but perhaps it is leading the world in this category. Everything from colonialism to the slave trade has been written on the ledger of Western history and culture, among their many other crimes of history. I am aware of much of this history, and I think that this context must be kept in mind.
Yet this is too simplistic.
The West also has philosophers, scientists, and other intellectuals who opposed–with speeches, literature, revolutions, and other means of resisting–the political, cultural, religious, etc methods of oppressing, enslaving, and otherwise being dicks to people of many regions of the world, including its own people. Also, many other sets of cultures have also committed many atrocities of their own.
The West also doesn’t have a monopoly on such philosophies, literature, and efforts of resistance. No culture has a monopoly on any human behavior. So even if “The West” is winning in the category of awful, and currently holds the reigns of power and oppression, they didn’t invent it nor are they solely liable. But if the point is that “The West” is currently holding the reigns and is primarily responsible for the current awful, then we are largely in agreement.
But let’s assume, for a moment, that “The West” was solely responsible for the general awful, for argument’s sake.
That is, even if “The West” did hold a monopoly on all the colonialism, wage/actual slavery, genocide, environmental ruin, political corruption, etc, and all other times, places, and people were innocent victims of “The West,” this still wouldn’t address the fact that much of the philosophical history of the “The West” are not the foundation of this oppression and historical crime.
Remember, the people holding the reigns also oppress and dominate its own citizens. Hell, my ancestors (primarily Irish) were under the boot of the English for hundreds of years, and while certainly not ideal in themselves, the Irish were rarely if ever in positions of any power with which to oppress anyone. Yes, my skin color offers me advantages in many cases in the world, but much of the historical oppression has landed upon my ancestors as well, even if to a lesser degree than it did to some others. I can still be racist as Irish, but the oppression is not coming from me. (Whether I’m responsible if I don’t resist it and speak out againt such oppression is another question).
But further, there is a tradition of resistance to the oppression, corruption, and dominance from those in charge within “The West” as well. Giordano Bruno? The Enlightenment? Abolitionists? Such individuals, movements, and ideologies were opposed to the sources of power within “The West” itself. And they had to use the tools of logic, rationalism, skepticism, etc in criticizing its own set of cultures. It is part of the “Western” tradition to criticize itself, it’s just that such critics rarely had sufficient power to make change. And when they did manage to achieve change in power, the results were often mixed, if not downright awful. The same is true in the East.
Criticism, resistance, and revolutions against the crimes of “The West” have tried, using rational and martial tools, to stand up to such crimes, usually failing in the attempt. The tools of oppression are not logic, rational thinking, skepticism etc, even insofar as those tools are used for them (because you need to use these tools to do anything well).
And that is the crux, here. To practically achieve any goal, whether oppression, liberation, or mere theory you must use, to some extent, rational thinking. It is merely a tool to be used for building or destroying; harming or helping; killing or healing. To irrationally conflate logic and rationality with oppression is to misunderstand the role that such tools have played throughout history, and is a failure to understand their power and importance as tools to resist and stand up to power.
The foundations of oppression are not logic nor truth. Fear, tribalism, greed, and other human flaws are the source of these things, and because logic, rational thinking, etc work in finding ways to achieve the ends of such ignoble flaws, they are necessarily part of the recipe. But remove greed, fear, and all the rest of those things which drive us apart, and you have no ideology at all; merely helpful tools which are impotent in themselves. That is, if you seek to resist oppression and win, you need to use the tools of rational thinking or you will almost certainly lose.
Yes, the systems of oppression, whatever they are, cynically utilize logic in the greedy grab for power, influence, deception, and ultimately control. But to reject one of the tools it uses, merely because it uses it; to employ resistance against such cynical control while rejecting its most powerful tools–logic, rationalism, and skepticism–is to make the exact mistake they are hoping you will make; you are falling into their trap. They see you rejecting truth, logic, and rationality and don’t have to say or do anything, because that’s how they gained that control to begin with. They denied you education, knowledge, and understanding and so they took power from you. When you reject it on your own you are scoring an own-goal. You are helping them dominate you.
You are not punching up, you are punching yourself in the face.
Power wants you weakened, confused, and impotent. It wants you screaming, irrational, and fueled by blind rage. This is how it manipulates you.
If you really want freedom of oppression, you need the strongest tools at your disposal. Those tools are clear, rational, logical, powerful thinking.
It means breaking your chains of tribalism that take the form of traditions, in-groups, nations, religions, racial identities, and even viewing love and sex in terms of property (which has been one of the intentions of this blog, over the years). The more you insist upon the boxes that are placed upon us as defining us, from the outside, the less free you are. If you really want to break free from oppression, you need to reject the limitations placed upon you; you need to deconstruct and possibly reject the framing of who we are, as humans, according to them.
But this doesn’t mean rejecting humanity’s greatest tools. So-called “Western” logic is not Western. It is a universal set of ideas discovered and improved by many cultures, throughout history, which have allowed us to build greater things, envision better ideas, and overcome previous mistakes. Just because most of us, in the West, talk more about Plato and Aristotle rather than Confucius, Averroes, or Avicenna is more of an historical accident than anything else.
In fact, the reason that we are talking about Aristotle at all has a lot to do with the fact that during the “dark ages” of European history, The Islamic cultures and empires carried the torch of intellectual history, expanded upon it, and gave us those very mathematical symbols we use now.
Remember, 2, 4, and 5 are Arabic numerals, ultimately derived from much older Indian symbols. 2+2=4 isn’t Western; it’s a set of symbols that are influenced from many contributions from many cultures, and have existed for hundreds of years before “The West” even had fever dreams about colonizing anyone except itself.
When the European powers colonized, invaded, and committed genocide with the help of gunpowder, remember that the West didn’t invent gunpowder. The fact that the West uses gunpowder doesn’t necessarily mean that we shouldn’t ever use it to resist further oppression, does it?
If you agree with my rhetorical point, then you should also agree that we need to utilize logic, rational thinking, etc. And if we’re going to insist upon 2+2=5, utilizing other “contexts,” then we are merely going to divide ourselves into more tribes, and soon we will not be able to communicate, let alone resist oppression. Like the story of the Tower of Babylon in the old Hebrew Bible, we will be cast in different directions, speaking with different kinds of mathematics and contexts of logic, and the oppressors will have no meaningful resistance against them because we can’t coalesce around the powerful tools which many have rejected because they saw them as “Western.”
Even the most evil, most corrupt, and most problematic oppressors use the best tools because the best tools work. To reject their tools is to reject your own power to resist their power.
That is precisely what those in power want us to do. Freedom requires using the best tools we have, and 2+2=4 is the basis for that power.
For a few years, several years ago, I played a lot of a game called Ingress. The details don’t matter here, but it’s essentially a game played on smartphones/tablets which is GPS-based and involves two factions–the Resistance (blue) and the Enlightened (green)–which compete for territory via the game mechanics. If you’ve played Pokemon Go, Ingress was sort of a basis for that, technologically. The game is played all over the world, and has a fairly complex story/lore involved which is similar to a lot of sci-fi, and over time (if you followed the lore) it becomes clear that neither faction is right nor are they wrong. One could make a rational argument for either side’s philosophy, goals, and actions throughout the games history.
But I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that people on both sides of the game really hated the other side, and found ways to demonize other player based the fictitious lore and philosophy behind it. It led to real-life confrontations (including me being personally, physically, threatened by someone from the opposite faction which led to a police report being filed), enmity, and people switching factions purely based on in-fighting etc.
I have not played the game in a couple of years now, and while I enjoyed much about the game, I could have very well chosen the opposite faction and had a very similar experience, different friends, and a different narrative about the fights. Real fights, hatred, and silliness.
Over a game.
One of my favorite TV series of all time is Babylon 5. This show is about many things, and is even prophetic in that it essentially predicts Fox News (in the presentation of ISN, the Interstellar Network News during one of the story arcs). I won’t spoil the details, but the show is largely about factions, wars, and narratives/propaganda, and there is one episode in particular–The Geometry of Shadows–which focuses on a one-off story which makes a point about factionalism exceptionally clearly and in a very amusing way.
Green versus Purple.
That’s it. No philosophical differences, no historical grievances, and no pre-existing political parties. Just randomly drawn colors which divides two teams who end up killing each other based upon what color they drew from a container. That was enough to create tribes.
So imagine what happens when the tribes do have actual, real, historical and philosophical disputes. Imagine how ingrained the enmity and desire to destroy the other team becomes when the stakes actually matter.
And then remember that no group, political party, philosophical school, religion, or organization has ever been completely right.
Further, throughout history, people outside of our in-groups have, of course, always been treated well and listened to. (That was sarcasm).
It’s ridiculous because no matter how just your cause, how right your ideas, and how good your people, there will always be valid criticisms from people outside your group. And many of those people are outside your group because of disagreements and because you push them away because of those disagreements. And if you view the world in terms of with us or against us, then any criticism makes you the enemy in some sense.
It is our human, all-too-human, unwillingness to hear criticism that prevents critics, in many cases, from being part of your group. In many cases, especially because we tend to think tribally, this will push people to other teams when they would have otherwise been allies.
All over idiological (sic) purity.
Letters and Entitlement.
The other day, a group of people, some who are considered problematic (and many of them I don’t personally always respect nor agree with), signed a letter. Here’s the text:
Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.
Beautiful. And yet, somehow, people disagree. How? Why? Well, for allsorts of reasons.
Here’s Alexaxandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet which seems to be, at least in part, a response to that letter and the underlying point:
In general, I really like AOC, and want more people like her in positions of power, but I disagree with her here. The irony here is that she is distorting, probably unintentionally, the complaints about cancel culture and why a bunch of intellectuals, writers, etc would sign such a letter. She has been distorted by many political enemies in many unfair and often disgusting ways, but she, being human, is doing something similar.
In fact, the overwhelming number of responses from people responding to the letter have misrepresented the point of the letter, as if it’s about being silenced or ignored only (because that happens too). I don’t think they understand the point being made.
I think there is a miscommunication happening here.
And before we continue, I want to draw attention to what I just did there. I am disagreeing with AOC. I still like her, and I definitely still want her in her congressional seat. If I were able to, I would happily vote for her (I can’t because she’s not my representative). But I am now being critical of a point of view that she has, and I’m about to explain why. That’s all the letter is asking for; I disagree, I say why. You don’t have to read this, you don’t have to agree, but this criticism should be viewed as part of a healthy conversation. It should be welcome, even if it is ignored.
A lot of people don’t feel safe to voice disagreement openly, because of bullying tactics by people who self-righteously think they already have the right answer and are not open to criticism.
Let’s break apart AOC’s tweet, and see where we diverge.
The term “cancel culture” comes from entitlement – as though the person complaining has the right to a large, captive audience,& one is a victim if people choose to tune them out.
Disagree. This is not about entitlement. I’m not entitled to be listened to. Anyone may ignore me so long as they like. AOC is simply missing the point here by misrepresenting/misunderstanding the point of the letter. It’s not about being heard, and except in a few extreme cases, nobody is literally being silenced. People are definitely being put in a place to fear saying what they think, however. The issue is that people who may criticize or disagree with even a small part of some ideologies are being associated with their enemies, when in fact we just want the idea to be a valid target for criticism. And so many people are keeping quiet out of fear. The 150 or so people spoke up because so many people have been made afraid, by ideological bullies who might threaten their livelihood or standing in a community merely for voicing disagreement.
In what universe should it be acceptable to react to mere dissent with anything except curiosity, disinterest, or disagreement without consequence to group-standing?
Many are being labeled as a racist, a misogynist, etc if we don’t agree with every facet of a narrative of theories about racism, sexism, etc. When we look at what racism is supposed to be according to Ta-Nehasi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, etc and someone enumerates a set of flaws in their definition or solution, such people are shunted off to the same section of the universe as Stephen Miller or Richard Spencer, and people are being bullied, losing their jobs, or being vilified as an enemy rather than as a person who is also concerned with racism but who might have a legitimate criticism and are dismissed as problematic or told we need to account for our errors.
But they think that you are the one in error, and they are trying to explain why. What if they are right? What if you are wrong? What if neither of you is right? How would you find out?
The point is that dissent not only should be acceptable, but that it is essential for the strength of the group trying to solve cultural problems such as racism, sexism, etc. Such dissent, so long as it is in good faith, should be welcome. It’s not about being silenced, it’s about not being welcomed due to criticizing an idea. The fact that so many people think it’s good to label someone as problematic or even bad because they disagree with some part of your ideology is the problem.
Odds are you’re not actually cancelled, you’re just being challenged, held accountable, or unliked.
Maybe in some cases, this is precisely what’s happening. But if you treat people with legit questions and concerns the same way you treat actual bigots or people arguing in bad faith, you are effectively shutting down criticism. You are making your ideology sacrosanct in practice, even if not in theory. You may not think of your theoretical idea as sacrosanct, but if you treat those who disagree as problematic, you are doing something functionally equivalent.
And this is the issue that is being missed, here, By AOC. It’s not that we are saying you must listen to anyone, we’re saying that if you see what we say, don’t like what we said, and cannot treat criticism or disagreement any different than you treat actual bigots, then all you’re doing is chasing people who are trying to apply critical thinking to your worldview away from your in-group, and all that will remain are ideologues who agree with you, or who at least are willing to nod along with you while they might harbor some qualms but who will not speak them out loud. So-called yes-men (I suppose yes-people is better)
Isn’t that precisely the problem with the Trump Administration? All the people who openly disagree are pushed out. The only people left are the boot-lickers. And whetehr you like the comparison or not, that’s what your effort, in pushing people out for needing to be “accountable” or “likable,” is doing to your very tribe. The cronyism and corrupt people around Trump is the result of a similar process of you making people accountable.
You can make people accountable without dismissing or ostracizing them, let alone by threatening their job or making them feel unwelcome wuthin your group. It’s childish behavior and your rationalizing it as making people accountable does not come across as good faith. This is puritanism, whether done intentionally or by accident, and you need to be held accountable for it. The difference is that I’m not saying anyone is bad or needs to lose their job over it, I’m saying they also need to listen.
Because, again,you might be wrong, even if only a little bit.Your worldview might be mostly right, but maybe not all-the-way right. And if you dismiss, block, and demean those who are willing to challenge you, then all you are doing is making your echo-chamber more and more insulated and homogeneous. Is that your goal? Because if it’s not, that’s going to be the effect by this behavior.
The goal should not be agreement or ideological homogeneity, but a culture of accepting critics. You might frame it in terms of making sure that there are no bigots or dangerous people in your midst, but in practice all you are doing is demanding ideological purity in practice.
And I really don’t think that’s your goal. And if it is, then maybe you actually are the problem. Wouldn’t that be ironic.
Sometimes, I’m on Twitter….
There are people who do have really bad ideas. How do we know they are bad? Well, we have used argumentation to identify actually bad ideas and those which are debatable. Of course, where we draw the line seems to be what’s at issue here.
It’s like the Overton Window, except where the edge is differs from person to person. For one person, acceptable criticism might be further afield than for someone else, and when we have a person, such as myself, who feels very strongly for social justice issues but might have some issues and disagreements with some of anti-racist theory, is my criticism, as a white man, valid?
To many, the answer is no. They think my criticism as a white man is not welcome, relevant, not appropriate under any (or perhaps they might say most) circumstance. To others, the answer might be yes. They would say that I have a right to be critical of a theory about race.
The problem of conflation arises when we start to identify different types of people who might argue that I have this right. Some of those who say yes will do so because they are actual racists themselves. But others who say yes, I do in fact have a right to be critical of some ideas about race, think so because they (for example) disagree with critical theory in general, and have a different approach to solving the cultural phenomenon of racism in the world. Both of these types of people will be dismissed, labeled as problematic, and ultimately conflated to the racist camp, when the basis for their opinions are vastly different. Both will be cancelled without much noise about how one of those groups is definitely on board with solving racism while the other definitely is not.
If you dismiss Coleman Hughes or Thomas Chatterton Williams (the man who spear-headed the Harper’s letter) in the same way you dismiss Tucker Carlson or Richard Spencer, then I’m afraid you have lost me. If you cannot distinguish between Sam Harris (who I have some personal disagreements with) and Ben Shapiro (I’m looking at you, Cody. Also, I actually really like Cody, so there’s that too….), then I think you are having trouble distinguishing between significant differences in criticism and worldviews. Theirs are not equivalent perspectives on the relevant issues, yet your dismissing of their criticism is functionally the same.
Coleman Hughes’ arguments against Black Lives Matter and anti-racism theories based in critical theory are not racist criticisms. Richard Spencer’s arguments are most definitely racist. Yet both are dismissed by those within the people who tend to do the canceling, and almost never even acknowledge that there is a difference between their disagreements.
We have to be able to recognize, by being fair, charitable, and steel-manning interlocutors’ arguments, the difference between an actual philosophical opponent to a potential ally that has some tough questions to challenge your worldview. And with few exceptions, that’s not what I’m seeing in the world.
We must do better, lest we be reminded of Nietzsche:
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
I’ve already been cancelled, so….
I’m an atheist, socialist, nonmonogamous, philosophocally-inclined, social justice-desiring, freedom-of-expression supporting, liberal, hedonist. And yet even I have to be quiet around many people in my life if I have a criticism of some of the Black Lives Matter ideology, because to do so is to be labelled a racist. It doesn’t matter that I think that the BLM movement is overall a very good thing, in terms of what it might be accomplishing and in terms of its ideology. I am genuinely afraid to voice criticisms in certain circles, because I value the relationships I have with many people (I’m guessing most of them don’t read my blog, but if they do….well, here we are).
No ideology should be beyond criticism. And this is what the letter in Harper’s is all about; we need to be able to criticize a movement based on the content of its ideas. No idea should ever be so sacrosanct as to be beyond criticism.
And while I have already named some people of color (and could name more) who are critical of some of the theories about race predominating news and books (especially of White Fragility, which I have found to be really really bad writing and logic), the fact that I would have to make this move is precisely the problem some of those writers, philosophers, etc have with the foundations of the idea of anti-racism at the ideological foundation of the movement. An idea is either flawed or it isn’t, and the fact that a person of color can criticize an idea about racism but I cannot is a flaw in the idea. If I’m capable of understanding an idea as being flawed, and my argument makes sense, why should it matter what the shade of my skin is?
I know I know…I’m expressing my white fragility….
I dream of a day when ideas will be judged not by the color of the advocate’s skin but by the strength of the content of their arguments. And this is one of the many reasons why this letter is important. Ideological purity is a dangerous foundation for a cultural movement, because any idea will be carried by a wave of tribalistic enmity of partisans, so if you start with purity as the foundation you have nowhere to go but authoritarianism.
Any authoritarianism, whether right, left, center, up, down, blue, yellow, small, grande, or whatever simply is a bad place to start.
For the 1/1000th time, Stop treating your beliefs as sacred. Nothing should be sacred.
And if I’m wrong, and you think me bigoted, racist, or whatever, then I suppose you can ignore me. But if you want to convince the world to change, then you’re going to do better than ignore dissent. You’re going to have to grapple with disagreement or be happy within your echo-chamber which will only change those who already agree with you, which seems like an ineffective way to achieve meaningful social justice.
Let’s say you’re watching a TV show. There’s a scene where a gun-holding person—perhaps an authority of some kind or maybe a vigilante—enters a room and is shot at by another person—again, maybe an authority, a suspect in a crime, or an innocent person who saw an armed person entering their home. The person entering shoots back and hits them. That character is now injured, critically or not, or maybe dead. Let’s say it was a clean headshot; that character is now dead.
As the camera moves to the shooter, we see some reaction, maybe surprise, relief, or whatever, and the story goes on. Depending on the context, this action is tragic, just, or maybe it was an example of that good old canard of evil. The story continues and we maybe have some dialog, a phone call (perhaps to let someone know the “problem has been eliminated” or that they might need some help hiding the body). In any case, the narrative lives on and we learn more about what happened and why.
At least for us, as viewers. Also for the character who did the killing. At least until they get theirs, or whatever.
For the character who was shot, the narrative ends right there. There is no reflection on the motivation of their killer, no sense of tragedy, and not even an awareness of the next scene. For that character the story ends abruptly. Fade to eternal black.
We live in interesting times. The media is flush with tragedy, corruption, idiocy, and all seems to be falling apart. Where you place the tragedy and corruption will depend on the narrative which has installed itself in your head, of course. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Recently another person was killed in a way which has caused narratives to explode with controversy and continuing stories, except for the person who was killed. For that man, the story is over. His end was a horrendous injustice, and had we talked to him a week before his tragic death perhaps he would have understood the nature of such a narrative as it pertained to other people in similar circumstances, but this particular narrative is not his. That narrative belongs to us and to the memory of future people. It’s not his because he is dead.
But the narrative, the story of human being in this time, in these places, insofar as our stories are able to be shared, will continue to be shared by all sentient being who are lucky or unlucky enough to share in it.
As it will be for all of us, eventually. Most of the ends of our selves will not be so public, unjust, and evocative of civil action. But no matter the nature of the moment of our death, the self is gone in a moment and the story continues for others.
This comparison, or perhaps we should call it a juxtaposition, between the narrative of culture and the individual self has been on my mind more than most things in recent years. News cycles about tragedies definitely bring it into more relief, for sure, as I usually think of such relationships of narrative and selves in terms of historical people. Authors I am reading who have died, especially if they died long ago, seem to carry, as I read their words, a kind of continuance of life in their words. The old canard (that seems to be my word today) of us living on through our work, creation, and the memories of others is apt here, but it misses where the juxtaposition of the self slides right off of the historical or cultural narrative and into oblivion, making contact only briefly in the sea of stories that is human culture.
I think that most of us, perhaps all of us, believe deep down that we are somehow attached to this narrative; that we are part of history and culture. We have always had our perceptions, memories, and experiences of the world. It’s all we know. So when we watch a death occur–whether public or private, obscure or history changing–we see death as a part of this narrative and so it seems like death is part of the narrative. But our death will not be part of our narrative, but only the narratives of those who live after. And we are not a part of the narrative, as the narrative transcends individual lives.
Death is not something we experience as the self, but only as a narrative of others’ selves. Our own death is only real for the intersubjective story being told by those who will exist after we do, and is not ours. This is because our self is not attached to the narrative, but merely skims across the top like a water strider until it’s time to get eaten by inevitability.
The thing that keeps getting stuck in the corners of my mind, my own temporary narrative if you will, is what that makes the narrative?
If the narrative is nothing but the collected stories of temporary selves skimming across the surface of…of what?
And then it occurs to me that the narrative is paper thin and fragile. All the anger, sadness, happiness, hopefulness, creativity, and all the other feelings we have about the world are stories we tell each other, and yet they seem to real, solid, and important. But they, in themselves, are nothing. There is no independent reality to the media upon which we waterstriders streak our ideas and selves.
Everything is a fiction upon which which we build concepts of reality and fantasy with the same brush.
But that isn’t the part of this which is compelling to me. That’s something I’ve accepted as a reality of our world for a long time. Nor is it the idea that this fiction is all we have access to—it’s quite literally all of reality for any and all of us. No, that’s been well understood since I read Kant as a teenager (I was, indeed, a party animal). What really rubs my gib is that it really feels like that fiction is attached to the world in some way. What I mean by that is that as I navigate the world I have the perpetual sense of this story being the world, and it takes a large amount of attention to try to imagine that it is only a covering upon it, and that my being aware of it doesn’t change the perception.
And isn’t the attention and focus to peel this facade from the world its own kind of facade? It’s facades all the way down.
I cannot shake the fiction because literally everything I experience is that fiction.
And yet it’s also real.
Similar to how Kant talks about Hume as awakening him from his “dogmatic slumber,” the tension of this reality/fiction in my head is, I think, among the more confabulating and perplexing parts of the human condition. Within this tension is much of philosophy post-Kant, including the various tensions between epistemological worldviews that make up the contrasts between skepticism and faith. Behind everyone who says things like “well, that’s just, like, your opinion man” or “you don’t know the truth any more than I do” lies, I believe, this tension.
And while there are epistemological answers to such a conundrum, they are at best probabilistic. Skepticism, the philosophical underpinning for the various techniques collectively thought of as the “scientific method,” cannot give us certainty in any absolute sense. Even faith, which is often paired with the sacred wine of conviction, can only give us an illusion of certainty. That is, what many people think of as certainty is at best an inability or unwillingness to doubt or even understand the true nature of doubt. Our old friend Descartes may have known a thing or two about the subject.
Certainty is not attainable, and of this you can be certain.
Speaking of Descartes; he no longer thinks, therefore he no longer is. But is he part of the narrative still, anyway? We are still talking about him, after all. How much of him are his ideas? Is it meaningful, aside from some quite slippery metaphor, to say he is still with us?
I think not.
(do I disappear into a puff of my own logic?)
I mean to say that the narrative definitely is not part of him anymore. He cogito no mo’. But the narrative carries his memory. But it did so when he was alive, as well. I mean to say that these words, as you read them, are part of an obscure part of our culture, and they carry meaning (I hope) for you and express a thought I am having as I write them. It lets you see into my mind. But you could read Descartes just as easily, and would his words be any more or less dead than mine? Do words convey life?
If you were to meet me, have a conversation with me, and get to know me then I am a living thing to you? But what if I have died since I wrote this? From your point of view, as the alive reader, would it make any difference? Does my being alive elsewhere as you read this make the words any more (or perhaps less) import to you? Any more or less real?
These words live within the narrative of human culture, and are no longer only mine now that I have typed them. They live in posterity, whether I am a live or dead, so long as they are accessible. Once I write them, they are as a live or as dead as the words of Descartes, Kant, or some other obscure blog author who I have never heard of. From the point of view of some cultural narrative there is no difference between a dead or alive person.
From the point of view of the narrative, aren’t we all Schrodinger’s cat? Are we dead? Are we alive? Does it matter to the narrative? No. To the narrative our individual life is irrelevant. And when I die, the narrative becomes less than irrelevant to me; it becomes oblivious, very much in the true meaning of oblivion.
The information we put into the world creates the narrative. As history unfolds, that narrative gets added to, changed, and perhaps improved (maybe not so much….) but from the point of view of the narrative (a fictional perspective, to be sure, as there is no objective points of view by definition) we could be dead or alive, and it wouldn’t know the difference.
Everything is that record, aside, perhaps, from the very moment of now. As in now now. (Yes, that’s a Spaceballs reference.) But we’ll get to that more below.
It’s similar to how if every other person was a P-Zombie (That is, a philosophical zombie or a person who acted and appeared to have inner experiences but in fact doesn’t have any ‘qualia’ or a sense of what it’s like to be themselves), it would be indistinguishable, to ourselves, from a world of people with inner experiences like ours. If every other person in the world were a complicated automaton with no inner self of what it’s like to be them, would that make your experience different than it is now? Is that how everything is and you didn’t know it? How would you know? Are you the only being in the universe?
Yeah, I just invoked solipsism. Typical philosophy nonsense, I know.
The imaginary narrative-perspective doesn’t care if the source of its change is a living and thinking being, a P-Zombie, a dead person, or a computer generated meme. From the point of narrative, information is information. And this, perhaps, might be an explanation for why fake news (as in actual fake news, not that fake fake news that Trumps talks about, which is nothing more than a narrative he doesn’t like) is so compelling. It might explain why it’s so easy for us to believe in nonsense of all kinds.
Perhaps it is too obvious to point out that all that we have is our temporary now. I don’t mean that all there is in the whole universe is now (especially if String theory is true), but because we are being who exist in this way where our consciousness is the creature of, or perhaps the creator of, the present moment all we have is now. From our individual points of view (at least those of us who aren’t P-Zombies), the now is all there is.
Anything that is not your very moment of consciousness, even if it is a memory (because a memory is but a kind of now which simulates a thing which happened before, even if corrupted by our lens), is that narrative. At least, that’s how it seems to me.
And yet we make decisions, define ourselves in relationship to, and live every temporary moment in context to this fiction. It is simultaneously all we know (And perhaps all we can know) and all a phantasm. And yet it’s real.
So, what is reality then?
Well, as Kant pointed out, the noumena is unattainable to us. And while what we’re left with is phenomenal, we have to be aware that we are all, collectively AND individually, constructing it. Our concept of time, color, etc are all (I think, anyway) based upon a real universe, but the construction is a skin we attach to this reality. Some of this is automatic, in that our brain perceives the world the way we do without choice, which is why is is so hard, if not impossible, to pry our thoughts away from it. Like I said, facades all the way down.
But some of it is, insofar as free will is a thing (it might just be another of the facades), created in a way which can be perceived differently. We can have different perspectives on things and perhaps those realities can also change. Beliefs, worldviews, and behaviors are examples of these. One of the reasons that so many people get “stuck in their ways,” try to conserve traditions, or become dogmatic is that they seem to get attached to a narrative. Perhaps they start to identify with it as if it were a part of them, rather than an external construction which has copied a part of itself into our brains much like a malicious piece of malware.
I think if we realize that we were never attached to the narratives to begin with then we might more easily skate across the world at will rather than get carried away by the tides of culture and history.
If you want to have any kind of freedom, I think it’s best to not identify with the narratives which are only facades indifferent to whether we are dead or alive. This means you need to stop taking your worldview, you sacred beliefs, and even things like your tribal/cultural families seriously.
Would we create the world we live in, as bad as it can be, intentionally? No? Then why do you grip so hard to it? If you want it to change, you need to change your perspective first.
We cannot literally, as some new age woo woo charlatans claim, change the world with your thoughts. But what you can do is realize that how you perceive the world is a construction fabricated from a combination of physiological perception and stories given to us by narratives unconcerned with you in particular (just like the TV show moved on after the character was killed, the narrative in the world is indifferent to you in particular). Whether you detach your identity from constructed narratives is up to you. I think it’s a worthy exercise to learn how to do. You can always go back later, if you find nothing of value elsewhere.
You will be doing you either way, but this way at least you can be more sure that the narrative home you choose was earned, and not merely inherited by historical accident and cultural circumstance.
Be willing to let go of everything, yourself included, if freedom and truth are important to you.
Especially Polydelphia, who booted me almost a year ago for a mix of (admittedly) good and corrupt reasons. And who made no attempt at restorative justice, despite your paying lip service to this very powerful and important concept.
OK, so right off the bat for the sake of clarity, I’m not becoming monogamous. My long-distance girlfriend, who is married to someone else and who is quite dedicated to sexual and romantic freedom, might have something to say about that. Not that she could prevent me if I decided to do so, but she would likely just laugh at me and think I’m being silly again.
(Side note; she somehow didn’t know I was silly until she was already dating me. Somehow, she got the impression that I’m very serious and lacked mirth from my years of writing. I wonder why she concluded that? In any case, in real life I’m extremely silly, irreverent (I think that might have been clear), and I definitely do not take myself very seriously at all.)
Anyway, back to (not really) shedding the thing that is half of the portmanteau which is the URL of this (increasingly irrelevant) blog….
So, a number of years ago, while still a member of polydelphia, I started to notice the rifts and factions forming in the polyamorous community, especially online. Facebook has been awful for a while now (I’m barely on it, now), and polydelphia in particular has become increasingly awful since they decided to make up that I was threatening people within the group and banned me (which was annoying, but the place is a shit show so whatever? A number of my friends had already left, previous, for the same reasons I was being critical of the group). But like just about everything in our culture, now, we are more divided than ever, and each faction sees itself as righteous and the others as bad.
Remember when that happened in the atheist community? Yeah, look at it now. David Silverman, Rationality Rules, The Atheist Community of Austin, oh my! (I’ll leave my opinions on those particular people to the side, for now, as they are not pertinent to this post).
Well, the poly community is very much the same, and the various factions continue to fight and dismiss one-another, and have become toxic.
And I’m so done with that community in general. Polydelphia won’t have me back, quite likely (and I would be very unlikely to want to be back), but I’m done with the community in general. So done, that I’m contemplating just dropping the “polyamorous” identifier from my life. This was spawned during a conversation with one of my closest friends, with whom I was having drinks last Saturday. A long-time member of the lifestyle (swinger) community, and a person I met through the local poly scene several years ago, we have bonded over many things, including both of us being total geeks. But the silliness and toxicity of the poly community right now is among the things we bonded over.
And I have to ask; is there any benefit from calling myself “polyamorous,” anymore?
So, this is the point where my amazing girlfriend, as brilliant as she is, would remind me that labels are mere descriptions. And as she has argued that no matter what the association of the word ‘atheist’ has, and no matter how annoyed any of us would be with the community, the fact that she does not believe any gods exist means that she simply is an atheist, and that declining the word would be absurd (Someone tell Neil deGrasse Tyson!) and meaningless.
Which, well, is true. Insofar as I continue to maintain multiple sexual and romantic relationships, or at least intend to, and do so in a transparent way, then no matter my thoughts on the connotations of “polyamory,” I simply am polyamorous. Conceded.
And yet my friend, who definitely does not self-describe as polyamorous (but who definitely transparently maintains relationships with multiple women), finds the whole damned thing to be ridiculous. He looks at our former friends in that community and just shakes his head. He gave up on you all a long time ago. Us re-connecting was a chance encounter, and one that has led to one of my closest friendships. And I can’t say he’s without a point in wanting nothing to do with any of you.
He is unimpressed and amused with all of the conferences, the self-righteous posturing, and especially the social mud-slinging over theory and control over such groups. And when he articulates such thoughts, all I can do is say amen, brother.
Shit, I think I just understood why Neil deGrasse Tyson refuses to adopt the label atheist.
Yeah, labels describe, but sometimes it describes who you are associated with. And I don’t wish to be associated with most of you. There are a few in there which I still love and will miss, but the community is too much of a mess to want to be associated with it, anymore.
Here are some reasons why.
The Republic and the thing about people….
get it? Res+Publica? Gah! Nevermind…
So, we might think of the leadership of the poly world as, in a sense, representatives of a set of ideas and the groups which form the groups which form the conferences, social events, and orgies which constitute the poly world. Such people are as potentially amazing and corrupt as anyone else (and are often both), but they are, at bottom, merely people (like I said, both awesome and corrupt).
But those people have a kind of power. Influence? definitely. Control? In some cases, especially of the rules of groups, choosing who speaks at conferences, etc. But most importantly they control the narratives. Those who speak first control the narrative, so I’m now very suspicious of certain people who are doing this loudly. We are on the eve of a time when those who manipulate will either be knocked from their pedestal or will solidify their influence with different tribes within the community, and those tribes will be ossified into tribes, with canyon-sized rifts between them, just like the atheist community. You will stop listening to each other (Many already have), you will point fingers and blame, but it will be all of our faults (mine included, in case you wonder if I think I’m innocent here. I’ve waged war, and we all lost).
When individuals or political alliances form (sort of like parties in the poly republic, vying for control of the larger community) and are faced with individuals or parties with which they have disagreements, bad blood, or mere power-struggles based in nothing but a desire to be in control, then the rest of us are left siding with our friends, the first narrative we heard, or who aligns with our worldview more. People will fall into different factions or tribes. Those factions will not be divided by people with the truth and good ideas over here versus people with bad ideas and abusive pasts over there. Instead, it will be multiple, in some cases overlapping, factions who will all have good and bad ideas, people with various levels of harm caused to other people, and better and worse (and separate) conferences. Some might be better than others, but they will all think they are that one.
Just like in all politics. And right now, those vying for control of polydelphia, in particular (not the steering committe, per se, but those who drive the narratives) are a lot more akin to the Democrat and, perhaps more appropriately now, the Republican party than I’m comfortable with; dismissing evidence that doesn’t favor them, defending people they know are guilty within, and holding sway with many well-intentioned people who go to the rallies conferences to cheer for their idols. Idols who are as problematic as any of us who found themselves on the wrong side of a narrative-promulgation.
The general community are overwhelmingly lovely, funny, and cuddly people who I adore. They are the people out there just getting freaky with their many loved ones from day to day without concern for the politics around them, with little understanding of how the sausage is made. They may have opinions or allegiances but what most of them want is just to find people with whom they share one slice of their worldview, and maybe get invited to the cuddle party. They just want a community.
They don’t generally care about ideological purity or the definition of solo poly (for example). They get annoyed by squabbles and just stay out of the line of fire. And when wars erupt (and one is coming), they tend to tune it out, stop attending events as often, or leave groups. Many are left without a community, in that case. Many are left wanting that community, but see it as so toxic that they refuse to re-join. Many of them were hurt by those screaming the loudest about how the community needs to be safer, ironically.
And for what?
Well, all sorts of reasons. Let’s look at a few of them, shall we?
Ideological purity: We have to make sure that the people in our group have the right ideas, are educated in the complexities of goodthink better ways to do poly, from people with experience. Never mind that people with experience disagree on these things. Never mind that we all fuck those things up. Purity is important at the level of ideas, if not action. I’m bothered by this, but have addressed this elsewhere (here and here, for example).
Safety: These communities need to be safe for those who decide to participate, so we need to keep bad actors out. Agreed, in general. Of course, where the line is is a point of contention. Also, pretty much everyone hurts people, and if you make that line in such a way that minor issues become cause for removal, then nobody, especially those screaming for safety, are immune from accusations. I know, for a fact, that those screaming for safety in the local poly community in Philadelphia (polydelphia) are protecting their friends from accusers who have been bullied out of the community. Many of those hurt people are genuinely terrified to speak out. One of those people who have acted inappropriately is giving a keynote speech at Poly Living tonight. Yup, I’m talking about you, Kevin Patterson. You are no role model. Not because you made mistakes and hurt people (we all do. I certainly have), but because you take advantage of your popularity, charisma, and celebrity to brush off your mistakes while vilifying and push out others who do similar things. You do not deserve to be talking to a community about responsibility, sir. You need to take responsibility first. (I won’t be naming accusers because they asked for anonymity. It is up to them to come forward, if they decide to do so. But as I was told, the accusation is sufficient to hold the accused accountable, right?)
Friendship: We know our friends make mistakes. But we love them, and they have wonderful attributes, so we are willing to over look or dismiss the accusations against them as overblown (and, perhaps they are). Just like the friends of the people that you pushed out of the community, like me (and perhaps you may have overblown our sins, as well). This is how in-group/out-group works. You defend your friends and vilify those with whom you have beef. It’s usually the bullies who gain control. That’s what has happened here, in Philadelphia. You are all amazing, talented, smart people who have made yourselves into bullies. I know you don’t see it that way. Bullies never do. Remember; how you see yourself is how Donald Trump, and his fans, see Donald Trump.
Control: At bottom, some people just want power. They get drunk on it, and that power breeds righteousness and a large megaphone (in Trump’s case, a MAGAphone?). A very few of you just like the power it gives you. Most of you are trying to do the right thing and are making mistakes. But those who seek power and attention often find it.
There are others, but that’s enough to make my point.
It’s all for vanity. People being human, all too human.
And, in the end, those in control of the narrative, who have the masses on their side because they are charismatic and have a good story to tell, are equivalent to the GOP right now, in relation to the impeachment and Senate “trial” we just watched implode. You stick together, you vilify dissent, you remove people from your organizations for vastly inflated or made-up reasons (I’m not the only one), when (some of) you are guilty of the same things. And then you think of yourselves as defending the safety of the group. Good intentions, very poor execution. You are failing at the one thing you are screaming about. You are making the community toxic, and calling it social justice. It’s not justice, it’s tribalistic in-fighting. Youa re failing at justice because you are as unjust as those you vilify. You are human, and you’re fucking up. We all do it, but some of us know we are doing it and try to do better. You need to do that too.
You have done corrupt and unjust things and spun narratives which benefit you. The politics of the poly world are no different than the politics of the US government. And the people defending the “safety” of polydelphia, as well as other groups throughout the poly world, are acting just like the Senate Republicans. You have, are, and will likely continue to hurt people all the while screaming about “safety” (“what about the children!”). It’s a distraction. Clean your own friend-group first.
I hope that those you have hurt decide to finally rise up and speak out against you. Many of them are terrified, traumatized, and beaten down. You’ve stolen control of a group with your self-righteous bullshit. So, retaliate, against me, if you like. Become the Donald Trump of the poly world. It will hurt me, it will continue to traumatize me, and it definitely will cause me sleepless nights and anxiety (I’ve barely slept this week), but someone needs to call you out. Since I’m already a pariah and boogeyman, fuck it. Have at me, hypocrites.
I’ve made my mistakes. I’ve hurt people. I’ve been abusive, manipulative, and I’ve ruined relationships with good people who I cared about. I’ve struggled with mental health issues (there has been therapy and growth) which exacerbated problems in relationships and compelled problematic behavior . I have allowed my temper to terrify people, I’ve manipulated people (it was never intentional, but I’m still responsible), and I have acted irrationally in ways that chased many people away. I understand why many of you are former friends, and I do not blame you for distancing yourselves; you made rational decisions, in many cases (though, not all). I have allowed my mental health issues (recent therapists don’t consider me diagnosable as a Borderline anymore) to cause likely irreparable harm to many many people in my life, and I am so very very sorry for all the hurt I have caused. To anyone who has been hurt by me who hears of this, I offer my sincere apology. I was awful at times, and those moments have haunted me for many years. If any of you want to reach out to me, I will extend the offer to talk. Otherwise , I will leave you alone.
But the irony is that some of the people who hurt me, and people I’m allied with, the most are the ones vilifying me the most. Many of them likely don’t even know that there are people out there for whom they are the abuser. It’s frustrating to me because they talk publicly as if they are the pinnacle of moral behavior and victimhood, but have done awful things themselves.* The accusation is enough, right? Well, then it is the case that either:
You are also an abuser who should be banned from the community, like all the people you point finger at. or…
Your algorithm for who should be banned is self-defeating and ridiculous, because nearly everyone would have to be banned, and then there is no community.
Your “community standards” for safety are broken, toxic, and are the very foundation of the problems in the community as much as any Shaun McGonigal is. You all have, at some point, hurt, been abusive to, or manipulated people (myself included). Clean that log out of your eye before you bring out that ban hammer again.
I’ve done the work. I’ve improved myself. I’m healthier. I don’t know what work you have done, some of us have never felt as if you even acknowledge that you did anything wrong. I know you can do better, because you are all also intelligent and amazing people in other moments. We don’t want you banned or prevented from speaking, writing, or leading. We, the pariahs, the dismissed, and the banned just want you to stop pretending you are innocent when you aren’t. If you want safety, start with yourselves.
Much of what you have been doing in recent years is toxic and unhealthy, in my opinion (not that you care about my opinion, of course). I know you are better because I’ve seen all of you be amazing. Absolutely, brilliantly amazing. I loved all of you, I saw you all shine, and you are not doing so as well as you could now because you’re caught up in creating and maintaining a culture which also toxic, even if it’s not as toxic as that which you fight.
“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
You’re likely laughing at me and my arrogance, right? How dare I criticize you, right? I get it. I’m not expecting to convince you any more than I’d convince someone cheering for Trump at his rallies. I expect to be ignored, dismissed, and retaliated against. I know that’s what you do.
I, however, will not back down from you. Not because you are wrong and I’m right, but because we are both wrong and both right in different respects, and we’ll never know in what respects by dismissing each other. I’m not dismissing your opinions of me. I’ve, in fact, spent many a therapy session, sleepless night, and personal writing in order to work out what I can learn from you and what, I think, you are getting wrong. I know you are right that I have done many bad things and hurt people, and yet I have grown and done the work. If you actually believe in restorative justice, and I know many of you do (in the community in general, I mean here), then actually practice it. Many of you have no idea who I am now or what I have done in the last few years. I know you think you do (which is not to say I haven’t made mistakes and hurt people in those years, but–again–I’m human I we all fuck up), but you have blocked me and dismissed me at every intersection so your information is old and your intel colored by a lenses of your tribe. If you insist upon continuing to do so without actually finding out what I’ve done in the intervening time, then your opinion must be considered suspect and factionally biased.
People who fuck up, do the work, learn, and get better is the goal of restorative justice. What you seem to want is punishment, banishment, and to crystallize an image of our worst moments into a definition of who we, pariahs, are. That’s not justice. I did, am doing, and will continue to do the work. I still have more to learn and to master, but I’m working every day to be better than I was the day before. Isn’t that what I was supposed to do? You have every right to ignore me, but if you come at me still, then you best be sure you know of what the fuck you speak.
We will never be friends again. That’s not my goal. So, I’m not asking you to do it for my sake, though I think you might want to consider doing it for the people you might continue to hurt, as I decided to do for my own life. Goodbye, my former dear friends. I have missed you from time to time. Take care.
So, to the poly community in general, and Polydelphia in particular, I’m leaving you behind because you have failed to create a safe, fair, and healthy community. Not for a lack of stringent enough rules or number of ban hammers, but because you fail to realize that safety is not achieved through fear, banishment, or mere demonization of people who fuck up, disagree with you, or who you just don’t like. All you have done is create an environment of fear in which anyone who has fucked up (and you all have done so) must say the right things in support for the goal of “safety,” keep quiet and hope nobody considers them important enough to out them, or preemptively attacks their “enemies” by labeling such people as problematic in order to define the narrative before those “enemies” can do it first. Maybe a few of you are actually without fault, in this regard. Cool. But are all of the people you defend also innocent? Would you react differently to an accusation against your friend than you would someone you don’t especially know or like?
There is a culture of fear in much of the poly community, and in our culture in general (shout out to ContraPoints). If you don’t see this phenomenon around you then consider that in this case it might be you who is in the position of privilege and power and are oppressing people around you without seeing it. Take it from a cishet white dude; it’s really easy to miss, even if you think you are seeing it. Those structure are, indeed, real, but they can act in communities by anyone of any background, no matter their place in the larger systems of oppression. Access to control over systems of power and oppression within communities is available to anyone if they reject the possibility that they have the ability to be blind to it. And we are all, at times, blind to our own power and control over people. Everyone. No exceptions.
Many of you are blind to your own power in this community, right now. One of you is about to give a keynote address at Poly Living 2020. Taking responsibility, indeed. Will you, really?
I’m seeing this all over the polyamorous community, and it will lead to ruin of the entire enterprise. I hope you are able to fix this going forward, while you still can.
I no longer have any hope for the polyamorous community to thrive. I know you are capable of it. Many of you are fucking it up right now, despite your good intentions, but you are also (all of you) smart, talented, and beautiful people who have the power to make the world a better place if you have the courage to do so. But you have to start with yourselves, your friends, and your tribes. Just like all of us as a species, nations, etc, we have to fix our own houses first before we start offering advice for how to build a bigger house for us all to live in a happy poly commune of love.
I wish you all the best. You’re going to have to do it without me. I’m sure you are relieved that this “abuser” is gone (wasn’t he gone like a year ago? Who is this nobody, anyway?). Now, you just have to deal with the ones in power in your community, doing lip service to safety.
-Shaun McGonigal, former abusive partner, current pariah, future unknown (but optimistic)
*I was very close to publicly outing some very bad behavior of some former very close friends and lovers, here. I believe I have every moral right to, given what that have done to me, but have decided it’s wiser to leave that aside, for now. Sorry for the disappointment, drama-lurkers.
I have been saying, for many years now, that I care about what is true. And, I do. But in reflecting upon some of the events over the last few years, there has been a splinter in my metaphorical appendages which has been annoying enough to make me re-evaluate this tendency, because I’m beginning to believe that this is too difficult a task to ask for without a strong awareness of how truth is so often tribal dogma or goodthink, rather than Actual Truth™.
Actual Truth™ is not so much a goal, ideal, or entity we can hold and share, because that would imply that we already have it, or at least its coordinates, to indicate. And this, I believe, is the focal point of the error that so many people make (myself included). And so I want to take some time, today, to make a distinction between truth as a metaphysical concept versus framing it as a process, because I think this would solve many problems we run into while attempting to convince people of the “truth” of something.
Whether in politics, religion, or inter-tribal warfare, the “truths” we carry with us are designed to be defenses and weapons, more than reality. But if you’re interested in reality, you may have to leave some of yourself aside for a bit, and take yourself much less seriously.
First, some definitions.
Reality as a metaphysical construct
Back in the old days, especially with the ancient Greek philosopher Plato who defined much of what would be considered “philosophy” for centuries within the Western European traditions, truth was (in a sense, anyway) a thing. Depending on how literally you took some thinkers of this tradition, truth was literally a Form or Ideal in the universe, immutable and (possibly) discoverable. Philosophy and science were just a means of uncovering truths in the universe through discourse, investigation, and (eventually) the scientific method.
In the philosophy of mathematics, for example, there is a debate which goes back quite a long time as to whether numbers, and mathematical relationships in general, are real things that we discover or if they are in a sense created as tools for our understanding the relationships between things. The nuances and grey areas within this debate are beyond the scope of this post, but if you’re interested in such things, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good article which can serve as an introduction to this area of study.
For our purposes here, the point is that some people think that the truth is actually real, in some sense. What is the densest material on Earth? Well, that’s a question with an answer which we can find (it’s Osmium, according my my Google-fu), and that answer is a real, true, fact about the nature of the world. If we wanted to know the densest material possible, well, that might be a different question which may or may not have a real answer, based upon how good our tools are to investigate such a question. Follow the same link as above to see a short discussion of neutron stars, for example.
So, in short, such a question has an answer which we can point to. What’s the densest material found on Earth? Osmium, duh. And you can point at your heavy osmium jewelry so that everyone can be very impressed. That is until you die from exposure to osmium tetroxide, which is a compound formed when osmium is exposed to the air. You know, that real stuff which is all around you all the time. Maybe settle for Iridium, if you’re seriously rich (it’s extremely rare). I, personally, wear a ring made of tungsten carbide which is like half as dense but still pretty heavy, but nobody is really impressed. Fucking haters….
Anyway, back to reality.
So, you can find a real truth to a question, but you have to make sure that the terms are well defined and have rational and empirical (when available) evidence to support the relevant facts. And many people believe that this is an indication that there is some actual reality which our language uses to describe, and by use of this idea the word “osmium” refers to a real thing which is, in fact, the densest (mass/volume, a real relationship, obviously) found on this planet. And then you can point at your collection of osmium (hopefully contained in some sort of sealed vacuum container, this time) and impress everyone with your strange collecting hobbies.
What I’m trying to get at here is that even if we have a definite answer to a question, the definiteness is the operative word. That is, we need to define the scope of the question to isolate a concept in such a way that we can make some sense of it and define the logical structure of the thought such that the answer makes sense rationally. The definition acts, for us, as some sort of lens through which we can “see” the real object. But do we? Is our definitional lens the thing itself? Do we ever really pierce the phenomenal barrier to reality and see the thing itself, the noumenal? (Kant says no, and he may be right). Aren’t all the things we perceive just simulations in our head of a thing which may or may not actually be out there, in reality? That seems to be the case, to me. But the definitions, the context, and the framing by which we perceive the real objects literally shape the world around us, and thus there is a sense in which it is true that we create the world we perceive, even if that construction is based upon something real “out there.”
And when we’re done with such construction, we have something to indicate, refer to, and interact with. We have reality, even if it’s just a simulation. It’s a construct of language, definitely (see what I did there?), but is it actually real outside of our conceiving of it with words and neurons firing? Is it more than a linguistic and cognitive construct?
Are we in some sort of Matrix?
I don’t know. But let’s take a look at another way to conceive of this question, for context.
Truth as a Process
Now, if you were paying attention to my clever section above, you may have noticed that I sort of hinted at this part already. Because even if there is an actual reality beyond our language and thought, the process to define, isolate, and logically structure the true thing is dependent upon, well, a process. Thinking is a process, logic is a process, language is a process, and science is most definitely a process.
All too often we will find people describing science in terms of “science says” or “we learn from science that” followed by a fact or set of facts. Science tells us we evolved from earlier primates. Science says water is made up of two parts of this and one part of that. Science tells us that stars are giant balls of fire very far away. These facts are just more examples of conceptually defined and structured words and thoughts, and by focusing on these conclusions we are missing the really important part of what science (and intellectual investigations in general) is all about.
What matters is the process. What tools are we using, how do we use them, why are those tools better than other tools, and are we using our tools well enough? And this is true in the history of ideas in general, not just the physical sciences. It’s also true of our worldviews, beliefs, and personal narratives about ourselves, friends, and enemies. Everything we hope to understand will be dependent upon what processes we use and how we use them. The reliability of any conclusion will hinge upon how we use such tools.
It’s much more valuable to have a strong handle on the process than the true fact/conclusion, because with the former you can get the latter, but not necessarily the other way around. Give a man a fish versus teach them to fish, blah blah blah.
And we are processes too. In a physiological and cognitive sense, we are a jumble of inter-related processes which serve a myriad of functions, rather than a static being. We are perpetually changing, growing, and cycling through processes we don’t have full conscious access to, but which are unavoidable. Our assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions themselves are dependent upon these processes and defined by them. The truths we hold, therefore, are secondary to the processes themselves.
The more we pay attention to the processes (both external and internal, assuming that distinction is meaningful) which we use to understand the world, the less we’ll be transfixed by the truths we accept, and we’ll be better prepared to replace those conclusions which have previously been put on pedestals or made into Platonic Ideals or Divine Reality with newer, better ones. Further, if we are able to improve our processes, we are less likely to get stuck in modes of thoughts and also better see past the faults in our truths and our methods. That is, not only can the truths we accept be upgraded, perhaps our processes can be as well.
If you believe Jesus is Lord or that psychic powers are real, these conclusions are based upon existing processes. If, upon further introspection, investigation, and skeptical analysis we discover that our processes can no longer support these conclusions, all the better (if the processes are good and used logically). But the further improvement would be to improve, reform, or replace your processes. A person whose epistemology consists of “God said it, I believe it” has a bad process installed, and so it’s no surprise when they conclude that Jesus is Lord. Skepticism is just a better process than presuppositionalism, for example, and can lead to more rational conclusions. That is, our processes are not merely relative, but some are better at others in terms of making sense of the miasma of phenomena we have to contend with.
What’s important here is to see that the process itself is a lens through which we construct the world. It literally shapes perceptions and defines our thought. It shapes the process doing the simulation of the world. The hard part is being able to identify your lens, in order to compare it with alternatives for the sake of upgrading or replacement; if you can’t understand how you see the world, you certainly will have a rough time correcting irrational truths and conclusions, and your beliefs will stagnate in errors.
And, this is the point in my writing that I am suddenly very aware that I’m trying to make a similar point I made in my MA thesis (a criticism of the illusion of ontological dualism as being an artifact of projecting a faulty tendency of thought onto reality itself), and that I’m about to start talking about Alfred North Whitehead.
(And yes, for once this was actually a spontaneous realization, and not a baked in “surprise” to my post, as I often do)
So let’s take a very brief pause and talk about process philosophy.
Make Whitehead Relevant Again
So, when I was in graduate school at West Chester, I had just discovered Alfred North Whitehead, or ol’ Whitey as I’ll call him (OK, no I won’t).
Whitehead was a contemporary of Bertrand Russell, with whom he collaborated in the 1890s on the subjects of mathematics and logic, but the two later moved in different directions, philosophically. Whitehead is not a well-known philosopher today largely due, I think, to his rather unorthodox metaphysics. But when I first read his work (especially his seminal Process and Reality, published in 1929), I was struck by it in a profound way. I wasn’t convinced by it, exactly. I didn’t become an acolyte like David Ray Griffin or John Cobb, both of whom went on to talk about theological implications of Whitehead’s process philosophy. But I did find something very valuable in shifting the way we think about reality, and process philosophy became a valuable metaphor for doing so. (In fact, part 2 of my MA thesis commits to seeing his metaphysics as a metaphor rather than a literal ontology, which I still think is a valuable take on Whitehead’s work unlike the essentially worthless Process Theology of his said acolytes, with whom I am still quite annoyed)
The essential thing is this; rather than focus on reality as a set of definite stuff interacting with other stuff (whether the simplistic ancient idea of tiny “atoms” and the “void,” as articulated by Democtritus in the 5th century BCE or later ideas of atoms as protons, electrons, etc), Whitehead invited us to imagine the world made up of processes. The perception we have of stuff is, in his theory, a kind of snapshot of the process. What he called prehension was, in some sense, us perceiving a moment of the process and creating the illusion of concrete stuff.* That is, the perception of the solidity and “stuffness” of reality is an illusion we create, but that all things are just a complex process and not actually things in the sense philosophers of old tended to think of it.
The implications on quantum mechanics, metaphysics, and science are interesting, but there are reasons his theory never really grabbed hold of the philosophical world the way that his contemporary, Ludwig Wittgenstein (who was also a subject of my MA thesis and part of my criticism of Whitehead), had on later philosophical thought. The reason is that his ideas were bad, if taken literally. I still believe that, as a metaphor, they are an interesting tool to understand aspects of the world.
Read his work if you’re curious about the details, but that is enough to move on with.
We are the warped lens through which we see all possible worlds
Do you see yourself as a person moving through time and space, taking in information, making judgments, and coming to conclusions about people, things, and ideas?
Me too. But let’s look at a shade of that idea which might either elucidate something or merely annoy you. Perhaps both.
Think about someone you love. Or like a lot. Or can tolerate for small periods of time, at least. Think about how you think about them, as well. What are the emotional associations with that person? How would you feel if you see them, or merely imagine them, being cruel to someone else, undeservedly?
Now imagine the same for someone you hate or dislike.
What’s the difference?
Now, what’s the truth? What kind of person are those people of whom you just thought? Is the first one having a bad day, and is the second person confirming your dislike of them? Or maybe you love or like a bad person, and have misjudged someone else who is just having a bad day? When did the truth of each of those people, and all the other people you could think of, become a real, definite, thing? When did you decide to love the first and hate the second, and why do you still do so?
When did you first deify or demonize them? When I asked you to think of someone you loved, you probably had at least one person in mind. Why that person? Why didn’t you get confused and accidentally think of your worst enemy? Didn’t you already have a lens, a filter, of your perception set up, for each of those people? And didn’t your new observation or imagining of them being cruel pass through that filter, rather than come to you uncolored?
Why was one on the good side of your filter, and the other on the bad side?
In order to save time, we humans tend to use general concepts (stereotypes, really) as place-holders for more nuanced and accurate perceptions. We have quick and dirty schema to make sense out of the people, objects, and concepts which surround us. One of these conceptual shortcuts is the tendency to define dualities or continuum, which leads to binary thinking, in many cases. In some religious traditions, such as Zoroastrianism, there are opposing supernatural beings pulling us in two different directions. The Light/Dark side of the Force, from Star Wars, is a fictional example of this (but aren’t they all fictional? ZING!). In the Christian world, it’s God and the devil, which derive from concepts more akin to something being placed in an idealized pedestal and something thought of as evil, harmful, but still powerful.
Gods and Demons, loved ones and enemies. Simple, effective, and rarely accurate at higher resolutions, but fairly universal of human perception and worldviews.
These examples of how we categorize people, ideas, places, etc are very natural and easy ruts for us to fall into, and doing so doesn’t make us weak, broken, or wrong in any moral sense, but I believe we have some responsibility to be aware of this tendency and to lift ourselves out of this rut when we see it happening. And I have written about tangential issue to this before, I know, but today I want to focus on seeing ourselves, our friends, and our enemies as processes so that we can, perhaps, allow ourselves to see people for what they are in the process of doing, rather than merely what they did that time when we froze our image of them in a timeless box. If we want to know what is true, we need to compensate for our tendency to sum up our surroundings up quickly and simply, in an analogous way to how video is a better tool than pictures to capture the reality of some thing we are investigating. Seeing people as processes is more accurate than seeing them as a defined and idealized objects, or static pictures.
Because if every one of us, you and I included, are stories we are telling ourselves in real time, then that story may change and have moments of mistakes, successes, and many more of boring, everyday, actions of little moral significance. A snapshot of any of these moments is only part of the whole process, and we need to be able to look at patterns over time rather than one tweet or moment of emotion (for example). It’s all too easy to allow such moments to define someone and to therefore decide to cut them out of our lives (“cancel” them), rather than the harder effort to understand them as complex human beings with possibly nuanced behavior and beliefs.
But more importantly, we need to remember that the story we are telling about ourselves is also a lens through which we see the rest of the world. It distorts ourselves as much as our surroundings, and if we want to define the lens, then we have to pay specific attention to the warping and distortions of our worldview. That is, we need to be very attentive to how we deceive ourselves before we can be sure we are beginning to see an accurate picture of the rest of the world. If you are unaware of the shape of your own lens, then you have little hope of being certain about the reality of anything around, or within, you.
You can love people who casually and normally do harm because they endeared themselves to you in the right way and at the right time, and you can despise someone who is kind and considerate because they did (or you heard they did) something that specifically irks you. And for some third person, with their own perceptions and opinions, those two people whom you love/hate could be reasonably swapped, and the person you love they will hate while your enemy is their trusted friend. And they may hate you, despite your good qualities, to boot. A little perspective goes a long way towards love, hate, and indifference.
So, how can we start to discover the shape of the tool through which we perceive reality? You have to start by being willing to question the most valued and sacred things; not your beliefs, per se, but what you are. You need to re-evaluate yourself, your processes, and the beliefs that those processes have wrought.
And it’s so easy to get that wrong, and therefore very easy to turn incorrect perceptions into deified truth because you revere your warped lens. For some people, their values are sacred parts of their identity, but I believe that those are the things we need to be most skeptical about.
If you want to see the world correctly, you need to start by seeing yourself correctly. And we are so good at lying to ourselves.
A correctly shaped lens has a depression
I’m going through a bad bout of depression, currently. It’s that time of year, and it’s been compounded by factors in my personal life, and I know it will pass. But in the meantime, I’m struggling. Depression lies, as the Bloggess says. But is that all it does, and is it the only liar here?
Some research has shown that depression has a tendency to offer some amount of cognitive clarity, rational thought, and nuanced reflection (the so-called “Depressive Realism,” see here and here) such that the rose-tinted view of the world is less prevalent, and we are able to see things are they are, to some degree, better
From the New Yorker, in 2014, in an article making reference to a famous set of experiments about depression and perception of reality:
Not only were depressed individuals more realistic in their judgments, they argued, but the very illusion of being in control held by those who weren’t depressed was likely protecting them from depression in the first place. In other words, the rose-colored glow, no matter how unwarranted, helped people to maintain a healthier mental state. Depression bred objectivity. A lack of objectivity led to a healthier, more adaptive, and more resilient mind-set. (source)
So much for self-help and the power of positive thinking as a means to seeing the truth.
In the quiet moments of self-reflection, I can tell myself that I am my worst mistakes. All the things that my enemies say about me are true. I deserve ostracism, enmity, and distrust. In times of confidence I can, alternatively, tell myself that I have done so many great things, maintained so many good relationships, and have done work to learn from those mistakes, and all the people demonizing me are merely unable or unwilling to see the distance between their crystallized image of me and the real me, which makes them wrong and possibly cruel in continuing to attack, defame, and ostracize me. So fuck them, right? They are assholes, and not worth my time.
These are just two different shapes of the lens I am capable of creating for myself. Neither is true, in any real or absolute sense. They are different framings that I project, and they will make the world look quite different from the other. Depression lies, but so does self-empowerment and pride in some identity. All our lenses lie, to some degree. The key is to figure how how and how much each lens lies to us, and not to become transfixed by any of them whether self-deprecating or self-empowering. The truth lies elsewhere.
I don’t believe the sad thoughts my mind whispers to me when feeling down, but I’m similarly skeptical of things such as “The Secret” or optimism as a means to empower ourselves, because it seems like a self-deception as well. And in some sense it is most definitely a lie. I have a close friend who swears by it, and believes that his optimism and attitude towards success are what makes him successful. Perhaps it does have that effect, but it is still, in some sense, a lie. It’s a lie of control, and arguing with someone who believes that they will succeed would be fruitless, mostly because they are insisting upon their deception and proud of it. They begin to shape not only their own lens, but the lenses of people around them and thus creating the power structure that wasn’t there previously. So it’s not only a lie, but it’s one that creates a new kind of truth which is then accepted socially, and thus has power.
I’m not confident most people will use this power for good, so I am not a fan of this approach.
But, more importantly, this teaches us that we can create a shield-lens around us which creates an intersubjectively real social field that effects our behavior because it defines our perception. The tall man walking confidently down the street in his obviously well-tailored suit, nice shoes, and expensive briefcase carries himself with self-empowerment, and this confidence effects not only his perception of the world (which is a lie), but it effects the shape of the field of others around him (whom are telling themselves a different kind of lie, perhaps). These social shield-lenses are the social structure in which we live, every day, and it helps define the culture, economics, and local identities which seem as real to us as the car he’s getting in or the homeless person he just ignored.
Because, again, we construct reality. The simulation of the car, the man, and the social status happen in the same mind, and have similar real effects on our behavior. And if these constructions are lies, even if only in part, then shouldn’t we be more skeptical about them?
We create our own reality, right? We define and create the truth, correct? Like-minded people, who view themselves as powerful, in control, and successful band together to create a tribal lens, and rival groups push and pull the reality around them leading to a world of competing tribes with their own realities, each of which is the lens through which they see the world. Other tribes will look warped because both sets of tribal lenses warp the reality as perceived intersubjectively, and the next thing you know there is no possibility of getting to any agreement, let alone Actual Truth™, because everyone is invested in their individual or group lenses which are defining their own realities, and warping all the other realities. It’s a vicious cycle.
It’s very possible (super easy, barely an inconvenience) to be a genuinely intelligent, well-intentioned, and honest person living your life as part of a community while trying to make the world a better place while simultaneously participating in the demonization and harm to other people. It is, in fact, the norm. I think everyone thinks they are, even when acknowledging errors and mistakes, generally good and doing the right things. Actual psychopaths are rare. The rest of us have normal good people as our enemies.
I believe, after some years of deep contemplation, that I’m almost certainly wrong about a lot of things, especially the things with the most emotional weight. The people I’m hurt by and dislike the most are not monsters, but flawed humans who just happened to hurt me in the right way and at the wrong time. And I know that people exist for whom that person is a trusted friend or partner, but who absolutely hate me. Do any of us deserve that? Like I said, actual psychopaths are rare, and it’s possible that I’ve known one or two, but in general I must conclude, unhappily but rationally, that I hate people who are decent in many ways. And so do you.
It’s very easy for me to fall into the rut of demonizing people for the ostracism, untrue accusations, and attacks I have received from factions within the polyamorous community (for example). Because despite the fact that I know most of those people are smart, honest, and well-intentioned, they are also corrupt liars just trying to protect something. And I think I know what they are protecting. It’s the same thing we are all protecting, in the end; ourselves and our lenses.
Because as a lens perpetuates in a person, group, or culture, that lens becomes a mythology, a narrative, and part of an identity. And this is how misperceptions, deceptions, and lies become part of who we are and what is sacred to us. And this is why I try to hold nothing sacred, because for me all is subject to scrutiny and criticism. And we all, in every group, have our sacred ideologies. It’s time to pull them down off their pedestals and re-evaluate.
It’s time to drop the shields
Remember how I was lamenting how we lose track of the fact that we are complicated, and that if we stopped deifying and demonizing people and saw them as complicated processes, then we might be better off (or whatever my point was)?
We’ve moved from the analogy of a snapshot image of a person, thing, or concept as being worse than a video of them. See them in real time, as a process, and we see more of the context and more of the truth. Except this is the wrong analogy. It’s the wrong analogy because it seems to imply that what we need to do is more actively pay attention to the lenses we are deceived by. It implies that we may need to take control of the shape of our lenses, talk with other people about their lenses so that we can start to understand one-another better, and finally start to talk with one another.
This, quite frankly, will not work very well. The reason, I think, is that this lens which we create, as individuals and as groups, is a projection from our (sacred?) values and beliefs about who we are. It is like a spell we cast around us, actively made stronger by the illusion, referred to above, of control. It is the very thing we see as a positive thing–confidence, empowerment, and identity–which creates it. If there is anything I have benefited from, in times of depression, it is the moments of quiet, passive clarity which allows me to drop the pretense of control and the identity it may provide.
Having actively meditated for many years helps this, as well. I have trained my mind to focus on its own processes, and between moments of sadness and self-pity and surges of confidence is a quiet space of stillness and authenticity in which even my most hated enemies are human and understandable, and my most loved and trusted human and imperfect. It is during these rare and valuable moments when I realize that the only way we can understand each other is by recognizing that we are not what we think we are.
We are not as self-aware as we think.
We are not in control of the vast majority of things
we are not right about most of what we believe
None of us. And it’s not our fault; this is the human condition. It’s just that all of us are almost always transfixed by a set of distortions of reality and ourselves, created by our attempts to better control and understand ourselves and the world around us.
We are, at best, semi-aware bits of matter filled with stories and concepts shaped by lenses we can’t see. The more we focus on any of it, the more we create the illusions in which we live our every-day lives. Just like how money is an illusion which we create, so is everything else we see. Whether the illusions are good things or not is besides the point, because if we recognize that they are not real, then we can’t become affixed by them and defined by them. And, finally, we can’t create gods, demons, or even truths if we aren’t willing to lend reality to the phenomena we’re projecting.
I’m not suggesting that we just give up and live as nihilists, but I’m suggesting that we all, as individuals, groups, cultures, and as a species (and potentially as a member of all possible semi-sentient beings) kill all of our gods, demons, and even our very identities. If we do so, we will begin to understand that we don’t know anyone, really, especially ourselves. Then we can stop defining people so easily and quickly based on limited information and context.
Only then can we start to glean the truth.
What is the truth? I don’t know. And neither do you. Perhaps if we realized that, we would yell at each other less on social media, and realize that people in power are really projecting a narrative that probably won’t be helpful to you. The one yelling the loudest is creating the biggest lens for themselves, and they won’t be able to see you as well as you can see them.
I see you out there. I don’t know who you are, but I’d be willing to sit quietly with you and maybe try to let my shields down, if you will.
None of this means that there isn’t actually any true things. This is not a nihilistic screed. There are still better and worst ways to govern, behave, and things that are more true than others. The point here is that we need to realize that the beliefs and behaviors which allow us to succeed in accomplishing things in life, whether self-confidence, empowerment, or group identity is also a source for self-deception. In terms of achieving practical success and accomplishment, the useful lies are helpful. But those very same perspectives and skills are detrimental in terms of seeing the truth.
I believe that much of religion and the history of mystical thought has realized this for thousands of years, but the mistake is attributing this to some more real world or more real being. This, ironically, is exactly the problem, rather than the solution. Just like how Trump supporters err in believing Trump-like “strongmen” are the solution to corruption, lying, and incompetence in government, mysticism and religion are wrong in believing that a supernatural or magic reality is better than the mundane/sinful world it tries to overcome. It is the very projection of a solution which is the source of the problem. I think there is a reason that many Trump supporters are evangelical Christians; they are both transfixed by the same fundamental error of not seeing reality because they are believing, so hard, that their savior is real when it’s all a deception. And it’s one they could stop projecting, if they weren’t so self-interested in maintaining it.
We need to stop mistaking our lenses for reality.
I don’t know the solution to this problem. I’m just no longer impressed by our human bullshit.
And I’ll continue to do my best not to get hyped by my own bullshit.
I’m not only out of fucks, but I’m convinced that the fucks aren’t even real to begin with.
*anyone familiar with Whitehead just winced, because I simplified that to painful extents. In reality, Whitehead believes that our consciousness is that process of the stuff we are made of being aware of itself, as all matter is supposed to do. According to the theory of Process Philosophy, all matter does this prehension at different levels of complexity, and the level of complexity adds up to different levels of consciousness. This leads to what some followers of Whitehead call panpsychism, which is, in many ways, the foundational idea to much of the ideas of universal consciousness (a la the annoying Deepak Chopra and so forth). The idea, popular with many spiritual traditions throughout cultures and history, that consciousness is part of the nature of reality itself, often leads to the belief that the entire universe would be aware of itself, and everything below it is in a hierarchy of awareness, including ourselves, animals, plants, rocks, etc, are all concious in some sense. This self-awareness of the universe is what God is for some Process Theologians. I’m not a proponent of panpsychism or process theology at all, but it’s an interesting philosophical attempt to make rational many spiritual and religious ideas, which I still run into when talking with many “spiritual” people. In short, Whitehead created a metaphysics which was influential on a lot of woo mysticism of the 20th century, which would make him my natural philosophical opponent.