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.
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.
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.
The current trend of the “woke” left is slipping more and more into the authoritarian side of the political spectrum, is increasingly non-skeptical, and is in danger of alienating the left, in general, through it’s self-righteous behavior. We, as progressives, need to emphasize individual skepticism and enthusiastic willingness to accept authentic criticism from people who want to be our allies, or wokeness will become just another blip in the history of cultural progress which will, in time, become as normal, dogmatic, and oppressive as any of the cultural norms it was conceived to resolve. Authoritarian, rule-based thinking is what makes an ideology oppressive. Shaming, ostracism, etc, which many radical progressives have been doing to people they perceive as “problematic,” is just another form of inquisition against heretics, and can only lead to a a world of authoritarians, Left, Right, and Center, where the Right (and possibly Center) is better at coalescing and thus will be able to win in that fight. The anti-skeptical Left is dooming itself by seeking ideological purity through fear of consequences rather than through agreement through encouraging a community capable of actual freedom of thought.
We all fuck up, because we’re human. But all too often the distinctions between “problematic” people and people in good standing in communities, exemplified here in the local Philadelphia group Polydelphia, are based more upon who you are friends with than what you actually did.
Let’s talk about keeping up with cultural progress within an increasingly toxic and fragmented world.
Popper, Kuhn, and the demarcation problem of cultural progress
A new sort of philosopher is emerging: I venture to baptize them with a name which is not without danger. As I figure them out – to the extent that they let themselves be figured out, for it belongs to their type to want to remain something of an enigma – these philosophers of the future may have a right, perhaps also a wrong, to be described as attempters. This name itself is finally merely an attempt and, if you will, a temptation.
–Nietzsche, BGE #42
For those of us who think of ourselves as progressives, there is a shared value of improving our lives and the world in general by finding ways to make things better. Our goals may be different, and out tactics certainly differ, but we at least share the overall goal of making things better through change, and hopefully improvement, of one kind or another. In some cases, the change is largely a reactionary table-flipping in response to the perceived dangers of the traditional culture in which we grew. In some cases it might be improving of, or slow replacement of, those traditional structures to make sure we’re doing it right. That is, even within the larger umbrella of “Progressive,” in terms of the political spectrum of the United States in particular, there is a tension between those who seek to burn it all down and those who seek to improve by tinkering with some things. And, of course, all the grey areas in between.
But these efforts exist within a cultural milieu, meaning that whatever political goals or tactics become popular must start somewhere outside of politics; they are a function of people making attempts to make sense of and to improve our understanding of the world, ourselves, or to redefine what it means to be human. People who live on the various fringes of society, whether artists or just younger people who grew up with newer information about the world, will continue to expand the logical space of what’s possible, find fault with what has been traditional, or redefine the questions through cultural criticism of all kinds.
Thus, so long as we keep learning and challenging ideas as a species, every generation will push our culture in various directions which will seem uncomfortable or merely unfamiliar to previous generations or those not close to the fringes. This is not to say that these cultural shifts don’t cycle, because they often do, but anyone paying attention now must admit that the cultural tensions, conflicts, and wars are dealing with topics which were not conceivable to the vast majority of the world just 50 years ago. And yet the logical structure of the cultural struggles seems to historically rhyme, as it does from time to time.
The biggest mind-fuck, for me, is the question of whether most fringe cultural experimentation is an analog of Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm shift, or is it one of tentative and slow excavation of the limits what it can mean to be a human in a group of humans, more like what Karl Popper had in mind (if we’re taking the analogy of the Kuhn/Popper tension to it’s limits, here). In short, the question is whether cultural progress is (or should be) a question of completely overturning old ideas and creating new ones or whether it is a slow, deliberate, process of separating the wheat from the chaff, in terms of what’s actually true. Is it revolution, slow deliberation, or a combination thereof?
And this is a difficult puzzle (and perhaps it’s a true “problem”) because if there is a legitimate paradigm shift happening right now, the new paradigm would not only look incorrect to those outside of the know, but it would actually appear dangerous. When you hear Christian conservatives warning their followers of the dangers of (as they tend to call it) “liberalism”–that “liberals” want to destroy the traditional family–they aren’t really wrong in some cases; I, an example of who such people think of as a “liberal”, would be fine with the destruction of the traditional family structures in our culture, at least as the default or norm. But what of the distance between the radical woke left and the more cautious, moderate, incrementalists? Here we have a similar dynamic, which (if you pay attention to places like Twitter, Facebook comments, etc, you might understand) illuminates a potential stark difference in not only the goals, but whether grey areas are even possible.
And then the question becomes whether the new paradigm is “true”, and which methods or definitions we could use to determine such truth or falsity. The very nature of a paradigm shift is one of overturning truths, making this more problematic. Of course, if one’s preferred methodology of achieving progress is not analogous to table-flipping, then one is advocating for the incrementalism of the moderates, or at least some skepticism of the validity and applicability of all of the theory behind a paradigm-shift of (for example) woke politics. Because if even any of the theory or particular conclusions of the woke are in need of skepticism or criticism, then slowing down and making sure that it is well thought out would be wisdom, not conservatism or compromising with actual NAZIs.
In short, just in case woke ain’t all right, we might need to slow down and make sure we haven’t taken a wrong turn somewhere instead of yelling about NAZIs. Yelling about “actual NAZIs,” when faced with internal criticism, is a very good example of the red herring logical fallacy. We’ll return to that issue later, but first we need to address a tangential issue.
Top down or bottom up?
I want to have a better understanding of whether cultural change is better effected by top-down, legal, rule-based methods or by organic bottom-up structures. In other words, does culture change and/or sustain because of rules, or because individuals make decisions which supervene upon the whole through a culture of individual decisions and relationships?
(Side note. Readers within the larger non-monogamous world may recognize a reference to the tension between hierarchy/couple privilege and anarchism/individualism here, which is part of the ideological splits within the poly world and has a similar mapping to this conversation. But that’s a whole post unto itself, and I don’t want this to become another Master’s thesis…)
You may have already guessed my answer, but rather than maintain the dramatic suspense which I’m sure you are all riveted by, I will get to the point.
Rules don’t work as a means to change. Rules are what we create after the change has started and we need to define what’s happening and need to create some boundaries for moral behavior and logic of the ideas. Along with rules come a vocabulary and some redefinition of truth or at least facts held together by some tentative theory to tie them all together. It’s very similar to science (hence the Kuhn/Popper analogy above) in that new ideas are tested and the results start to form a picture, a proto-theory, to describe it all. While it’s happening, at the cutting edge of cultural progress, we can never be too sure about how certain to be about our developing worldviews.
And yet I’m noticing a lot of woke people being disproportionately certain about the world they are in the process of creating, while admonishing and shaming those who either aren’t keeping up, disagree, or are still more tentative than those who are certain would like. And I think that the reasons they have being so confident aren’t justified, and thus their certainty, admonishments, and shaming are unwarranted consequences for not being sufficiently woke, in at least some cases. (I want to distinguish this phenomenon from those on the right claiming, for example, that feminism and the like are mental illnesses or dangerous delusions, which are not, in my opinion, valid criticisms nor interesting, philosophically. I’m talking about disagreements within people who agree with the underlying power-dynamics, but might disagree about tactics or fringe applications of the theory).
People don’t behave because a rules exists, unless there is a fear of punishment by some authority (and then in some cases, not even then, necessarily). In terms of religion, it’s the punishment of some god, either in this life, some imaginary afterlife, or potentially both. In politics, it’s state power; if you break the law, you go to jail, get ostracized, get executed, etc. In the case of relationships, you risk losing a relationship and/or trust which would be otherwise salvageable. In a community, the driver of fear is loss of reputation or even participation in the group. You behave because, if you don’t follow the rule, you’ll get smacked down. Especially if you disagree with the rule and decide to question it.
In other words, rules only work because of fear. And while fear can be a motivator, it also leads to cheating, dissent, and rebellion. And it’s extremely common. Basic game theory here, people. Loosen your rules and they will be thwarted, to the chagrin of leadership, moderators, and members alike. Ruling with an iron fist will make people afraid to rebel or be a dissident, but it requires some level of autocratic or at least top-heavy control to maintain subservience to a strict rule, and makes the community hierarchical and a self-selected binary of the decision makers and those who don’t want to stir the pot, when dissenters are ostracized or removed. When woke people take control of communities, and heretics are removed for not adhering to their ideals, the community self-selects for certain people and the group, as a whole, distances itself from people who have valuable things to add to that community due to mere disagreement and unwillingness to not rock the boat. It creates insular echo-chambers and bubbles where criticism will eventually be invisible and anathema.
This is how authoritarian regimes form, and how dictators or oligarchies come to be. Just look within the bounds of Trumpistan, and you’ll see the same thing. But if you look within certain communities on the left, you’ll see the same behavior and result; even among anti-hierarchical, anarchist-leaning groups you’ll find that there is an orthodoxy, and a few people who defend it at the loss of contrarians and critics who were problematic for the goals of the group, as it is rationalized. It’s so much easier to control because it’s much more efficient for those who seize the levers of power. That is, I don’t think that such leaders actively seek to create such orthodoxies, they are genuinely just trying to keep the group remain civil and weed out trolls and such. But sometimes telling the difference between a troll and a person bringing legit and authentic skepticism is difficult and time-consuming, and eventually personality conflicts will enter into the equation of which this person is. For the sake of simplicity, it’s easier to make rabble-rousers feel unwelcome or to remove them. Completely human and understandable, but with dire consequences for communities of all kinds in the long run.
Thus, eventually what was a cultural conversation and conflict of goals, tactics, and so forth becomes a political one, when the average person is put in charge of moderating, steering, or leading a community. And, if we aim to use politics, laws, or policies to solve our problems within communities, a strong personality who is willing to take a no-nonsense approach to a problem might be needed if we want to minimize drama and conflict. Such a person will be human, be subject to manipulation from other members (lobbying), and some of those people have specific agendas and interpersonal conflicts. And, in the end, the best lobbyists win even while such lobbyists are often guilty of the same, if not worse, behavior. This is how corruption forms, both in small communities and in governments. It’s just an accident of human behavior and how it effects group dynamics, and is rarely intentional or an actual planned conspiracy.
Take our current political climate with this president, this congress, and the continued presence of lobbyists and special interests at war for control and influence. My problem with our current cultural climate is that the tension is pushing us towards either a dictatorship by a narcissistic, inept, and corrupt millionaire (Trump and the like) influenced awful people versus a set of progressive ideas by a community who is similarly incapable of self-criticism and seems allergic to pragmatism (often for good reason, but the question is when it’s NOT a good reason to defy being practical). On the left, especially by woke elites, most criticism is handled as if it were indistinguishable from a snide comment by Infowars, Fox News, or actual Nazis. Anyone remember that argument between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck? Yeah, Ben Affleck is an idiot. Sam Harris, despite his own flaws, is correct here.
And the larger point is that even if Sam Harris and Bill Maher were wrong here, that doesn’t mean they are equivalent to actual islamaphobes or other right-wing bigots. There is a difference between being critical of someone who holds Affleck’s view and someone who wants to destroy all leftist ideologies. Sam Harris, and also I guess I, want to create a world where it’s still OK to have arguments and disagree, but not be considered apostates or -ists of various kinds just because we disagree with your conclusion. The attempt to legislate laws or top-heavy hierarchies of control is not creating an open, just world. Rather, it’s just another form of authoritarianism. And if the left wins this cultural fight (it seems unlikely to win the political one, partially because of this problem), then it is just another kind of orthodoxy and heresy to divide us even further, and make us more inneffectual and perpetually powerless.
But at least we can feel self-righteous.
The narrative of ‘The Right v. The Left’ is too simplistic; but insofar as it has any meaning, each facet of the current social/political/cultural divide is subject to tearing themselves apart from within. And in such an environment, it’s the one which coheres around a narrative which will survive. Right now, the narrative gaining strength is the one on the capitalist/fascist/Trump end of the spectrum, while the Left is arguing itself into oblivion over nuances so allusive and arcane that I can’t even follow the threads. But what I have seen within the many communities I have been a part of is an increasingly authoritarian tendency, creating the above-mentioned orthodoxy and the heretics that become pariahs. We can, and need to, do better.
Authoritarians, both Left and Right. But the right tends towards obedience better, so they will win that fight, unless we make some serious cultural changes within the left, now.
I’m not optimistic.
Political Power and the Cutting Edge of Cultural Growth
So, is politics the art of compromise and pragmatism? Isn’t all politics, especially the notion of practicality the center of realpolitik? Therefore, aren’t the fringes, including the radical “woke” left and the proto-fascist (alt-)right (among others) of our current political conversations merely a means to make any actual political movement impossible except via power struggles?
Isn’t the failure to realize that politics is not the cutting edge of cultural growth the very failure responsible for the political tribalism, factionalism, and ineffectualism of our current state? Isn’t the inability to compromise the reason we’re falling apart in an #AmericanDecline?
I’m making the point too strongly. I don’t actually believe that change and progress are impossible within the political sphere. I don’t actually think that practicality, or the willingness to compromise with one’s opponent, is the only valid move within politics. I don’t actually think that (for example) Nancy Pelosi’s incrementalism or Joe Biden’s willingness to work with segregationists in the past, as compared to the more radical efforts of the Congressional “squad,” is better or more wise. I don’t actually believe that idealism and real progress is impossible in politics.
But I do believe that no matter how much idealism and radical change exists within the purview of people in positions of political influence, it will always, by necessity, lag behind whatever cultural progress people are cutting into the vague, undefined, space of the universe that human intuition, intelligence, and imagination are charting. The more one lives in the halls of power, the more they lose track of the ideological cutting edge out there in the world, mostly because of time-management and exposure to such things makes it harder to be near that cutting edge.
Having to work within the framework of any system necessitates some level of compromise to such a system. The question then becomes to what extent one compromises. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “squad” compromise minimally (perhaps), and Nancy Pelosi compromises a lot more. It’s a question of quantity of compromise, not whether one will compromise. The only way to not compromise would be to become a dissident, off the grid, not intertwined with the political system at all (except, maybe, as a prisoner within it).
Total anarchy, right? For that, maybe check out this guy (who just put up the attached video, below, today about getting too woke, for a different perspective on this issue), who seems to pretty minimally interact with political power and does not advocate for doing so, and makes great videos with a very interesting point of view. But I’m not advocating for anarchy, exactly. Not at this point, in my growth as a political thinker, anyway.
To reiterate for emphasis, I believe that the more time a person spends in politics, they will necessarily lose the narrative of that charting of new ideological space. Digging into policy and whatever compromise with realpolitik, which such positions necessitate, ushers one’s attention from the cutting edge of all human experimentation. And I think that we need to keep in mind that all of this exploration of what is possible–from all the artists, cultural critics, and daring explorers of what it means to be human–is a space of testing and not yet conclusions.
Because sometimes those attempts fail, or at least need some significant reconsideration before implementation. We need a way to test these ideas in a way that will figure out if they actually work, sort of like what Adam Gopnik argues in this book recently published (and which I just started reading) about the concept of liberalism; liberalism not as a centrism, but as a methodology rather than community membership. It’s a method, not a clique.
To sum up, those who cut into the unknown fabric of logical space around our culture, language, and social mores occasionally fuck up, as all experimentation will inevitably do. We need to apply an effectual set of tools to figure out how and in what way they have fucked up, and this self-criticism needs to be built into not only the policies of the ideas but into the very culture of the people who take part within expanding our view of it. Because sometimes it takes decades or centuries for us to figure that out, thus we need to defend against creating orthodoxies or sacred laws which we’ll just have to fix in the future.
Even entrenched political, cultural, and social rules were once revolutionary, radical, ideas. As we continue to chart the expanses beyond the status quo, remember that what is radical now may one day be an oppressive status quo for some future generation. So we need to be extra skeptical and critical of what we are creating, for their sake. Wouldn’t it have been great if our fore-bearers did that better?
Religion as an example
Whatever the origins of religion, and it’s utility for society, it was certainly one that allowed human genius and creativity to make many wonderful and terrible things. The insight that there was a source of inspiration for moral improvement and a space to explore the meanings, origins, and goals of human life is one that, at least metaphorically, was necessary for our human development, I think.
And yet, the insights of religion, especially the notion of gods, spirits, and all the other supernatural beings, were simply incorrect ideas about the world. In addition to being wrong, they have caused as much (perhaps much more) harm than it has assisted us in our exploration of what it means to be a thing in the universe aware of itself.
Religion was both a source of creativity and growth, while simultaneously a delusion and a mistake. It is, in fact, the same mistake that the philosopher’s made in the mind of Nietzsche, who’s insight into how profound this mistake has been has been one of the most earth-shattering realizations of my own life. Here’s Nietzsche:
“To translate man back into nature; to become master over the many vain and overly enthusiastic interpretations and connotations that have so far been scrawled and painted over the eternal basic text of homo natura; to see to it that man henceforth stands before man as even today, hardened in the discipline of science, he stands before the rest of nature, with Oedipus eyes and sealed Odysseus ears, deaf to the siren songs of old metaphysical bird catchers who have been piping at him all too long, “you are more, you are higher, you are of a different origin!”—that may be a strange and insane task, but it is a task”
We have fooled ourselves with our own genius. We, throughout history, have had revelations of both sacred and profane matters, and the light from these realizations have both blinded and led us to new horizons of human possibility. Walking into each of our sunsets, unable to see either our future nor the true source of our inspiration, leading to the error of placing gods in the place of minds reaching blindly into unknown space.
And throughout history there have been critics who stand by, willing to look the sun directly in the face and stare it down until it resolves into shapes, and have been willing to say “uh…what?”
We are in a cultural moment, historically, where there are a lot of things up for grabs. Religion and unskeptical thinking concerning the nature of reality is still dominant, in both organized and unorganized spiritual forms. Various forms and levels of economic slavery, and general manipulation of the masses by people with power, money, and influence is still as common as land and water. And millions of people affected by these realities still follow and chant in favor of the foundational political orthodoxies and cultural dogmas responsible for their position, genuinely ignorant of the underlying problem. People are overwhelmingly unskeptical, easily manipulated, and ignorant. Some people, some of them smarter, wealthier, or at least luckier get to take advantage of this for their own benefit. Nothing new, really. It’s just scarier to lots of us right now because we see Trump’s rallies continue to get more and more ridiculous and potentially dangerous, and so we are anxious, scared, and want to stop it before it’s too late.
Subsequently, some people are waking up and seeing potential ways out. People are using their intuitions, intelligence, and imaginations to find ways out of this mess, and coming up with all sorts of ideas, explanations, and worldviews to make sense of it all. We have red pills, woke, people, and Brights all over, trying to lead others out of the morass of lies and manipulation. And they all have conflicting answers.
We have been a species desperately trying to figure this out for at least 6000 years of civilization, 3000 years of philosophy, literature, and oral traditions, and decades of sharing this historical information through technology. And we’re making the same goddamn mistakes over and over again. Because even in our genius we are blinded by our own insights.
And just like with every other era, there are people standing on the side, watching it all, and saying “um….what?” from every direction.
And you know what’s worse? Those contrarians, cynics, and grouchy commentators are just as easily subject to the same fundamental software bug that all humans share, and they have ideologies of their own. So there’s no simple way to say “it’s fine, just look to the contrarians and skeptics for the truth” any more than there is a way to say “no, it’s fine, because the young people, on the cutting edge of defining what it means to be human, will figure it out.”
Nope. It’s never that simple. The kids might not be completely alright, just like we weren’t all right.
Skepticism and the Left
I, primarily, identify as a skeptic. This is not a community identifier, it’s a methodological one. Again, method and not tribe. That is, I use skepticism as a methodology of belief and inquiry, but don’t think of myself as a part of any skeptic community any longer. This qualifying distinction is necessary because within the atheist/skeptic community, to be called a skeptic is often associated with a group of people who, according to some others, are “problematic”. And, in many cases, they are right.
Michael Shermer, for example.
Right. So, in case you don’t know, Michael Shermer, who leans right politically and largely identifies as a Libertarian (which, in the US, is a person who is a capitalist who wants a small government and lots of personal freedom, free speech, and freedom of thought through dissent). He’s also the founder of the Skeptics Society and publishes Skeptic magazine. In addition, he’s also been accused of rape, racism, and a bunch of other things which are largely anathema to the Progressive “woke” world. I met him once or twice, and was not especially fond of him. But I like some of the things he values, in the Venn diagram sense where I will overlap with pretty much everyone on something. Thus, while we share some values I’m not a fan of him personally. Concerning the accusations referred-to above, I’m unconvinced of the extent of PZ’s vilification. Let’s say I’m skeptical.
So, there’s a difference between being a skeptic and a Skeptic. An unfortunate consequence of the association of skepticism with personalities such as Michael Shermer is that the word ‘skeptic’ itself is largely met with derision by some within the woke left, which has led to a lack of the practice of methodological skepticism within those circles in recent years. Perhaps incidentally, there has been a rise of practice of things such as tarot, astrology, and pagan “magick” within the left, especially among younger queer people. I have no idea if there is a causal connection between these facts, but it has always struck me as interesting and depressing for the communities I am closer to, in terms of their not valuing critical thinking and truth.
One more controversial facet of this conflict lives, I believe, within the #MeToo movement. The idea that we need to believe accusers (“believe women”) and support them is in philosophical tension with the core of skepticism, which has led to many arguments between people within the larger skeptic community and the woke world that sides with people who claim to be victims.
The issue is complicated, and I don’t want to spend too much time with it, because I don’t feel qualified to do so and because it’s largely tangential to my primary set of points, but I cannot completely gloss over the topic, either. The truth is that for decades (centuries, millennia, etc) men have gotten away with all sorts of sexual misbehavior towards women, and we exist in a time when feminists are leading the way towards a future where this can be ideally minimized and, hopefully, a cultural change can make this a bad historical memory rather than a perpetual reality.
The general goal of the feminist movement, in this regard, a very good thing and I certainly support a world where a woman (or anyone, really) feeling safe to step up and talk about their experience in an effort to identify problematic people, behavior, and social mores concerning sexuality, consent, etc is a good thing. But the tension exists precisely where we have been instructed that it is morally superior to believe women immediately, which includes to not speak in favor of any skepticism about the accusations. Because a skeptic, qua methodological skepticism, should require evidence before believing a thing. The fact that we exist in a world where a non-consensual sexual behavior can be hidden behind the wall of the lack of evidence has pushed us into a cultural moment where believing women appears to be a necessary act to protect people. I understand this perspective, and I want to believe women when they make their accusations because I understand how pervasive the problem is.
However, where the line of skepticism is placed depends on who you talk to. In some cases, the false accusation problem is considered so minor that it shouldn’t even be factored in, so such people will argue that we need to believe the accusations in all cases. I’m uncomfortable with this, as are many people who hear this narrative. Where the line should be? I am not sure, but absolutism is not the answer.
And, let me be clear, I do think that false accusations are rare, but I also think that this is a false dichotomy. I believe false accusations, as in claims of events which never occurred, happen,* which is why I think that this progressive value of believing victims is in need of some skeptical criticism. I accept the underlying reality that sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, etc are serious matters that need to be addressed with restorative justice, as opposed to transitional justice or any sort of “justice” which amounts to assumed guilt, ostracism, etc.
But then we need to deal with the fact that this false accusation/belief narrative is a binary which needs to be put aside, because that is not the real problem. The real problem is the tendency in recent years to equivocate regret, resentment, bad breakups with abuse, impossibility of consent, and predation. The reason it’s a problem is that it equivocates actual predators and mutually toxic relationships or situations where people who did very little wrong, in my view. In other words, the arguments that many people make concerning the definition of abuse and particular instances of it have not, in my mind, made their case well. I’m not convinced, in very much the same way and I’m not convinced a god exists. My disagreeing with you is not a form of enabling or giving cover (we’ll get there), because I just think you haven’t made a strong logical case. Am I supposed to pretend I agree because it will get me woke points? That’s what critics on the right call virtue signaling. The result of such equivocation is that many people who read about a situation with a lot of grey areas will apply that equivocation to the times when they read other stories about actual predators, and thus conflate them.
In short, we need to stop equivocating bad or regretted relationships with abusive ones. Because any “justice” system which equivocates (for example) any power imbalance with an inability to consent, and therefore concludes that any such power imbalance is equivalent to abuse or rape automatically, is not what I mean by the term “justice.” Both may be bad and may need to be addressed through work and so forth, but we need to be careful with our new attempts to redefine these words and rules designed to police such behavior within our communities. Such ideology and subsequent rules seem, to me, to be attempts to grow culture in a direction that is emotionally compelling, but doesn’t stand up to skeptical scrutiny in many cases. We need to be able to criticize when we see this policy-making go badly, as it sometimes does despite best efforts of people trying to do the right thing.
There are way too many people being vilified, accused, and generally made to feel unwelcome because of a combination of petty personal politics, exaggerations of actual events, and flat-out fabrications that can be fit into the letter of the law, but which would never hold up to actual scrutiny by most people. My removal from the secret Facebook group, Polydelphia, could be included as an example. Not only was I informed I was threatening people (which was the reasoning given for my removal; I most-definitely was not threatening anyone), any request for evidence of any kind was brushed off. I was treated the same way an actual predator was, with as much recourse to appeal as they would have. And I know of many other similar situations of other people both from this group and others (of which I cannot, or will not, speak publicly at this time).
There. Now I’m outed as a problematic person to everyone. It’s already become clear to me that much of the “woke” left is incapable of handling nuance or critical thinking in any effectual way, so even while I overwhelmingly agree with their worldview when it comes to systematic racism, sexism, and all the systematic problems in our world, I’m already a pariah so I won’t be heard nor taken seriously by their leadership. All because of a few bad apples playing political games, and manipulating some people who have never even spoke to me, but who have the levers of power within their local groups and have unskeptically believed what they have been told by people with bad blood against me, but with whom I have not spoken in years.
So, for those people here’s what I have to say; I’ve done a lot of awful things in my life, and hurt people. I’ve also had years of therapy, self-reflection, and growth. I like who I am, have healthy relationships, and my experiences have led me to a place in my life where I’m not only not a danger to your community, but may be a person your community needs. I have heard that you feel like your actions and opinions of me are justified, but very few of you have ever actually spoken to me, and the ones who have haven’t done so in years. So, all I can figure is you still consider me anathema because we disagree and I have challenged some of you in comments? I still haven’t learned to stay in my lane as a privileged person? Or do you actually believe I threatened people in the community? (if so, where are the screenshots? I unequivocally deny those charges). Perhaps you should look to the people who have been the most powerful lobbyists against me, and consider what I may know about them and their behavior? (cards I haven’t played because I know everyone fucks up, and I believe they are generally good people, as I am myself).
I think you need to apply some skepticism towards your decisions, your policies, and perhaps some of your friends. Because if all of our skeletons were removed from our closets, I think just about everyone would be considered problematic
And this is the thrust of my essay, here. The Left, in general and specifically those small groups I’ve seen this pattern emerge within, needs to clean their own houses. And not clean as in remove problematic people, but by taking a hard, self-critical, skeptical look at it’s values and group policies and make damned sure that your own shit makes sense before trying to self-righteously remove people, lecture to the world about moral behavior, and define social justice. Because nobody is going to listen to you if you aren’t making any goddamned sense and you allow personal enmity to drive who is problematic. Because we’re all problematic; we’re all humans who fuck up.
Personal politics doesn’t equate to truth, although that is effectively what it happening.
As a former acolyte of the extreme wokeness, I am willing to say, publicly, that many of y’all have lost your damned minds. And no, I’m not red-pilled. I’m not an MRA or an incel. I’m not a NAZI and I’m not even a centrist (I’m pretty far to the left, politically), but I simply reject some of the values and arguments popular in much of the communities on the left (including the atheist community, poly community, political organizations, and even just some friend groups) where most disagreement, especially by contrarians and skeptics is treated as heresy. Because much of the left has become authoritarian in its thinking and is drunk on their own self-righteousness and power. They have created, for themselves, a kind of proto-privilege which could, potentially, become oppressive if they win the culture wars. So no, this isn’t a white cishet male claiming I’m the victim, this is a person recognizing the same logical structure of what you want with what you are fighting against. You have emulated the enemy, and while their conclusions are worse (at least, I think so), it’s not the only dimension that matters, in terms of calculating what’s problematic.
And that’s the issue. Because in the classic 4-quadrant political diagram, there is a left and a right, but there is also a top and a bottom; authoritarian and libertarian (the above mentioned “Libertarians” in the USA exist on the bottom right). And, in recent years, those on the Left have been divided by those on the upper end of the spectrum from those, like me, on the lower end.
The authoritarians have been advocating for sets of rules. A lot of groups require that the leadership must have people who are not white, cishet males, for example (Polydephia has a rule, like this). We must believe victims. We must use pronouns of people’s choice. And whether these rules are good things or not is not the issue. The issue is what happens if you violate one of these rules? What’s the punishment?
Laws and rules are impotent without a consequence, and so such rules are really about creating fear. That is, this effort of setting rules of behavior, language, and safe opinions seems to be less about building up a culture of understanding why we don’t do these things, and more about creating consequences, such as ostracism, being labeled as a heretic (“problematic”), and considered equivalent to the enemy (you know, actual NAZIs) for breaking the rules. It creates an us/them mentality where anyone who doesn’t accept the rules is a “them,” and thus, in this binary thinking, the “them” become functionally the same as the actual fucking NAZIs.
Remember; rules don’t work without fear. So, the rule that we must believe “victims” will only backfire the more we learn that some people are making shit up and other people are equivocating a power/age imbalance with sexual assault or predatory abuse. If you are not willing to have a real conversation about the important nuances, then you are simply practicing a form of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, which is a top-heavy, legalistic, rule-based system which seeks to change the world through law rather than actually working on ourselves as individuals who are willing and capable of questioning the orthodoxy. You force people to become dissidents, which then trigger the us/them responses in our brains, and expands the rifts between people rather than understand why they disagree; after all, any of us, at any time, might be wrong.
There’s no need for orthodoxy. If you’re right, then your values and arguments will survive criticism. But the woke left is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with criticism, as I have seen, personally, time and time again. Criticism makes one problematic. A relationship regretted becomes a power imbalance, and therefore abuse and possibly sexual assault. And heterodoxy makes one a threat, and subject to ostracism.
And, locally, Polydelphia has become an example of all these things. I’m sure you all have people, communities, and ideologies that fit the same bill. I’m done playing nice. Y’all aren’t woke. You’re just self-righteous. If y’all were really woke, you would be skeptical more and comfortable having your worldview challenged from within, rather than remove or isolate people with differing conclusions or who you heard stories about. I know several people who have left Polydelphia in recent years (most of them female, incidentally), in some cases with messages left behind telling the leadership that they are akin to Mean Girls (you know, like the movie about cliques), and the political games played within is a microcosm of the problem that may end the United States as a country.
Our road to becoming Gilead (the name of the country that replaces much of the USA in The Handmaid’s Tale) is being paved by people incapable of introspection and self-criticism to be willing to coalesce into a group powerful enough to defeat a community led by a corrupt, narcissistic, inept person named Donald Trump. Let me emphasize; Donald Trump will continue to win, politically, because the woke Left insists upon rules of behavior, 1984-style, backed up with consequences. This dynamic is pushing people away who think that you, defenders of the right truth, are incorrect or corrupted by personal politics. And it’s possible that they are, sometimes, right. Your self-righteousness is part of the reason we are in this place, because without it, we could coalesce into a leviathan with reality and science on our side, except that you insist upon ideological purity to a set of ideas which are so new, so cutting edge, that we can’t rationally even be sure are yet well thought out enough to be worth your certainty. Because even if you are, ultimately right (and I think you, at least generally, are right), as a person who could be wrong, you should dial back your certainty.
If Donald Trump wins again (and I think that’s likely, at this point), it will be because y’all woke motherfuckers won’t wake up to the reality that you are pushing millions of people away from your cause because you are so far up your ass that you can’t actually grow among disagreement or nuance. We can’t have revolution if the leaders of the potential revolution can’t even see their own plank in their own eyes. We need everyone to have a revolution within themselves, first. We need communities where people are able to safely be skeptical of the whole enterprise, and these mini-revolutions can create a culture of enlightened, awakened, wise people who don’t need rules to be decent people because they have worked it out for themselves why woke is right and how woke is right, rather than feel the fear of being ostracized for mistakes, disagreements, etc because they had some questions or concerns about whether and to what extent woke is right.
Criticism is not uncivil, and it should also be part of being woke. Right now, in many places, it’s not.
The false-equivalency argument, “Centrists”, and actual fucking NAZIs
I know, I know….actual fucking NAZIs, white supremacy, and systematic injustice.
I’ve heard y’all screaming about it. I get it. I agree with you. There is a significant problem with the rise of the right, of fascism, and autocracy in much of the western world, formerly the great democracies of post-WWII. There are real bigots, racists, and a lot of people are worried about their cultures and communities no-longer having the privileges they are used to. True, they frame it as a kind of reverse-racism or a threat of being erased, but what it really is is a loss of privilege.
It’s the same with religion, especially Christianity in the west, which sees itself as being under threat. Millions of Trump supporters see him as a savior, a Cyrus-like great leader who will save Western Christian culture from the hordes of secular, liberal, and family-hating nihilists who will stop at nothing to destroy their values and bring about a demonic world of ash.
Think I’m exaggerating? Then you aren’t really paying attention. Because much of the Right is cohering around a narrative. Now, their’s is a narrative much less based on reality than that of the woke Left. They are much worse at believing bullshit, usually peddled by their insular media outlets (Fox News being the moderate voice in their world). Their worldview is conspiracy theory upon lies upon paranoia, and it’s truly terrifying and absurd and represents an existential threat for millions of people, and needs to be stopped.
So, why am I not directing my rage and criticism at the Right? Well, 1) I am 2) They view me as part of the demonic/atheist (they often don’t understand the difference), secular, and perverted (they may be right, there) world they think is unreliable and dangerous, 3) they very likely aren’t even reading this and 4) because I think that the progressive left is potentially reachable and fixable before it’s too late.
See, I’m not totally cynical? A touch of optimism.
The Right and the Left are both suffering internal problems, but I’m part of the Left. I’m interested in cleaning up my own house, even if most of the people there hate, distrust, or consider me problematic. And while I don’t have the readership I used to (a couple years of inactivity and the drama from a few years ago fixed that), I have some readers, and some who are probably keeping an eye on me to make sure if I misbehave they can tell their friends that I’m still being awful (hi there, former friends! Hope you’re well….)
So no; this isn’t an argument for some moral equivalency or relativity in which I state that the values of the alt-right are just as valid as those of the radical left. Nor am I saying that the woke Left is just as bad as the proto-fascist Right, because it isn’t. But just like small injustices are still unjust, small errors are still errors. I’m not a moral relativist. To be clear, I think the woke left is largely on the right track, but I see them as too prickly and defensive to criticism, especially from a cishet white male, such as myself.
I just hope to be judged by the content of my argument.
Again, I’m not optimistic.
What am I saying?
I’m saying that all of the woke people fighting for social justice, historical awareness, and a better world have their hearts in the right place, but are blinded by their own ideologies to see when they are occasionally fucking up and giving ammunition to our cultural opponents and enemies. I’m saying that all those red-pilled, alt-right, or Jordan Peterson admiring people also have their hearts in the right place, but are similarly blinded by their own biases to be able to see how silly they look. And I’m also saying that the cautious, skeptical, incrementalist liberals are too far up their own asses to see that they are similarly fucked up. Literally every one of us is subject to this, without exception.
Especially me (just in case you might be wondering how narcissistic I am)
It’s not that the truth is relative, or that all is permitted because of the death of gods, but is is true that we’re merely specs of semi-sentient bits of carbon taking a ride on a big rock orbiting a ball of fire in a universe so immense we cannot conceive of it, and someday we’re going to die–we’re going to simply blink out of existence–to be replaced by trillions of future bits of semi-sentient pieces of matter all over the universe, each with their own perspective, worldview, and tribe of friends, family, and co-ideologues to exist for a little while, all signifying nothing.
The Truth exists, it’s just that none of us have it. What truths we do have are based upon biased perspectives and narratives shared among people with similar experiences, and are at best statistically defensible based upon limited evidence. We know evolution happened but we aren’t so sure that your conclusion about your ex is going to hold up to scrutiny. And yet we yell at each other over the meaning of “concentration camp” and “racism” and “patriarchy” and “freedom of speech” and on and on and on to no other effect than demonizing each other and creating safe tribes for ourselves.
Let me be really clear. You don’t know shit about the vast majority of everything. You don’t mean shit to anyone except maybe a few dozen other people who don’t mean shit to most of humanity. You’re ideas are, merely from a probabilistic point of view, probably stupid and incorrect. And you are yelling at someone else in the same goddamned predicament as you, because they got a different question wrong from the one you got wrong. That’s all the culture wars are, at bottom.
And it doesn’t matter that one side or the other may be more wrong or right, because insofar as you ignore your own shit, you will never effect change in any meaningful way by merely yelling at other bits of semi-sentient carbon. You cannot convince your enemies to side with you, excepting rare individual cases, by sticking to your narratives and orthodoxies and not trying to understand the orthodoxies of others. So, unless you are willing to wipe them out, you’re going to have to work on making yourself better and hope that in the process you inspire more people outside of your peer groups to pay attention more and dismiss you less. Ideological purity and self-righteousness just magnifies any differences between bits of semi-sentient carbon, and only hastens the coming apocalypse which we should be trying to avoid.
Your beliefs about the world, again statistically, are hung upon a thin string of hearsay, from a small segment of people who happen to cohere to your experience and community, and it’s almost certain that the vast majority of every thought you have ever had is in some way wrong, biased, and informed by other wrong and biased people.
And yet all you do is shame, ostracize, and dismiss other people making different mistakes. It’s absurd.
But sure. You heard a thing about a guy, and because it fits with a narrative which you have accepted based on cognitive and emotional factors which you barely understand or even have access to, that thing is true.
Have fun with that. Continue to spread your memetic narrative of what the world is most definitely like along with your tribe, and feel self-righteous. Refuse to challenge yourself, or listen to the problematic person who broke the orthodoxy and made some mistakes, because what has conflict and mistakes ever taught anyone? What could that person, with whom you disagree about much, possibly teach you? They are obviously wrong about that one or few things, so they can’t have any value to you, right?
And I’ll be sitting along, on the side, saying “um…what?” while you sneer at me saying “um…what?” and then we’ll all die, letting the next generation to continue the dance, for as long as our species manages not to kill all of ourselves.
But sure, you’re woke. Or sure, you aren’t one of the sheeple. Sure, you are enlightened. You know what’s real. You know what’s right. You know that throwing a milkshake is not comparable to actual violence, so fuck all them. Or you know that abortion is murder, so fuck all them. Or you know that atheism is devil-worship, so fuck all them. Or you know that men who say that it’s #notallmen misses the point so fuck that guy and possibly all men. You’re perspective is special and right, and you don’t need any more perspective at all.
Last question; Why do you think that the direction you want culture to go isn’t a mistake at least in some ways, just like every worldview that every human being in all of history has promulgated?
And neither do I.
All I’m hoping for is that as we try to create a better world, we have enough humility to build into our cultures the enthusiastic willingness to prove ourselves wrong. If we, as a progressive segment of our culture, have any chance of making the world better, we better make damn-sure that we are making ourselves better individually, and include in our next culture patch the enthusiastic willingness to consider that our newer attempts to make rules, guidelines, and means towards justice are all correctable and open to criticism from grumpy contrarians, centrists, and other crotchety progressives such as myself.
The alternative is that we risk being mostly right, and mostly and perpetually powerless.
*It happened to me; some Facebook friends may have received a message from a woman (no need to name her) back in February accusing me of abuse and sexual assault, but nothing of the sort ever happened with her (I can provide screencaps to show that she was, in fact, pretty awful to me when we were living in the same house). I do not believe she is necessarily lying (that is, intentionally telling a falsehood) but I do believe she is not only capable of lying, but I think she actually might have rationalized it being right to do so in this case for political reasons related to people trying and succeeding to get me removed from the secret Facebook group Polydelphia, who trumped up charges that I was threatening people through the group (I wasn’t) within a day or two of her messaging people on my Facebook friends list. I was informed by a few female friends who received these messages, who either blocked her or responded skeptically. I subsequently blocked the woman and limited access to my friends list only to friends. I also lost some friends who unskeptically believed the claims, because that’s the “right” thing to do. I don’t blame them, nor am I surprised, because who would make that shit up? This experience has heightened my skepticism of this worldview, where previously I was on-board with believing “victims” on face value. More, similar circumstances I have become aware of has also raised my level of skepticism. I hate that this is the case, but nonetheless, here we are. I don’t want to disbelieve women who come out publicly, but now I have reason to be skeptical.
So, this image popped up on my social media radar, today. It, of course, turned into a dumpster fire of a conversation. And, unsurprisingly, it demonstrated Seth Andrew’s point.
So, I don’t listen to Seth’s show. I’m saturated with podcasts and also since I’ve felt like the atheist community has become largely a cesspool of infighting and absurdity (much like the local polyamorous community here in Philadelphia), I’m mostly unplugged from movement atheism. Aside from the Puzzle in a Thunderstorm people and their affiliates, especially The Scathing Atheist, I don’t listen to much atheist-oriented podcasts, anymore.
That is to say that I don’t know enough about Seth Andrews to know what his positions are, specifically. From what I do know about him (he’s a friend of friends), it seems he and I would agree on most topics. But when it comes to this post of his, I think I can say I agree with the underlying sentiment.
As a leftist, I see a lot worthy of criticizing on the left. The fact that actual NAZIs exist doesn’t erase this point.
I grew up attending a school back in the early 1980s, and graduated in 1996, in an educational environment which valued things such as tolerance, diversity, community, and social movements dedicated to making the world a more peaceful and just world. In those days, I didn’t know terms like “social justice” or “woke,” but those terms would have described the culture in which I grew. And, from what I can tell, those values are part of the culture of the current culture of that same school.
I like those values. I still largely value the same types of things to this day. But I’m also critical of Quaker values, for a number of reasons. It’s true that in comparison with much of the rest of the world, and especially our own United States’ cultures (yes, plural), it’s pretty idyllic. But if I’m concerned with the truth and the striving for a yet greater world and worldview, I will not ignore the relatively small imperfections just because larger ones exist.
When I read criticism, from the Right, of my own Leftist communities I see a caricature and often many outright falsehoods in such criticism. But I also see genuine misunderstanding; a failure of two framings, worldviews, and sets of values to understand one-another. In other words, I see authenticity on the Right, Center, etc when they criticize “wokeness,” even if I disagree with their criticism. It’s possible to be authentic and also be wrong.
I’m aware of the fact that I’m playing the game of life on easy mode. I’m aware that the color of my skin, my gender, my sexual preference, and many other facets of my life give me an automatic set of advantages in our society that I am able to easily ignore or shrug off. That’s what privilege is; I’m able to not be faced with certain social injustices that many other people cannot ignore nearly as easily or at all.
I also have some aspects to my life that give me a disadvantage, though this disadvantage is significantly less likely to get me discriminated against, beaten, or killed. But I am aware of the privilege which practicing traditional relationship structures and being religious (especially Christian) provides in our culture.
The fact that I’m aware of this, that I’m (too some extent, at least) woke is, I think, a good thing. I’m aware that the tiny amount of discomfort and annoyance I have to deal with when trying to explain what being nonmonogamous means, or why being an atheist is not “just as bad as being a fundamentalist,” is easy in comparison to being (for example), a POC trans woman. But it’s still true that the world would be a better place, that justice would be better served, for those small injustices not to exist, right?
That is, even the small injustices are still unjust.
Providing NAZIs with “Cover”
The image above was posted to a facebook group I belong to. And since I decided to procrastinate at work, I decided to scroll through some of the comments below it. Now, the comments were all over the map, and there were many I agreed with and many that were making Seth’s point for him.
The accusation is that people like Seth, and his defenders (in terms of this post from which the image derived), are spending too much time being critical of the Left while not paying sufficient attention, or perhaps out-right denying, the reality and threat of actual NAZIs.
I don’t know how many actual NAZIs there really are. And if we added the white supremacists, white nationalists, and all the other bigots in the world, I imagine that the number would be “way too many” of all of them. Mostly because any number is way too many, in my estimation.
But can we agree, I hope, that not all of the people on the Right, and especially the Center, are NAZIs or other bigots? I’ll assume we’re in agreement there. So, then, are those same people overwhelmingly complicit with many of the goals of all those NAZIs et al? That is, are the people who exist in the gray part of the continuum between woke progressive social justice warrior and actual NAZI all providing cover for NAZIs, insofar as they disagree with any particular pertinent conclusion of the woke Leftist in question?
I mean…I don’t know. It seems to me that many of them probably aren’t. And then I’m reminded, once again, of Sam Harris.
See, Sam Harris is seen, by many on the woke Left, as providing cover for the Right, especially insofar as he is willing to have conversations with people who have all sorts of questionable political perspectives. Whether it’s Charles Murray or Ezra Klein, Sam Harris is willing to have difficult conversations with people he doesn’t necessarily agree with. And Sam Harris, being human, is going to make mistakes, have bad ideas, and disagree with you (no matter who you are).
But there is a sort of irony here, since it was Sam Harris who, for me anyway, introduced the idea of moderates providing cover for extremists. In his case, he’s talking about moderate Muslims, Jews, and Christians providing ideological and political cover for extremists within their communities. In other words, people on the Left who criticize free speech advocates, such as Sam Harris, because they provide cover for the far-Right are utilizing the very same type of argument that Sam Harris uses against the Left for defending Islam and religious belief in general.
It seems to me that we might, as a culture, need to take a closer look at the logical structure of these similar arguments to see what values we might choose to apply to them.
The Relativity of “Liberal”
In our various ideologies–whether they are political, religious, etc–there will be people who exist on greater or lesser fringes or closer to some cultural center or “norms” (which, of course, shift with history).
In politics, we have the familiar Left/Right and Libertarian/Authoritarian diagram, as below:
This is the diagram which Seth’s meme refers to, and which largely encapsulates the various political ideologies in much of the world (though I’m sure it has it’s critics).
For a person on, for example, the far right of this but towards the bottom, we have what we call, in the U.S., a “Libertarian.” They have tendencies towards a free market (which usually includes free expression) and allowing that market to choose who is successful and who is not. Our efforts determine our place in society, and they just want governments to generally leave them alone; lower taxes, legal drugs, smaller government.
Looking at them from the point of view of someone from (again, for example), the upper left region of this diagram, one can obviously see where they would conflict. And they would not agree on very much, at least politically.
But what about someone closer to the center? Where does a “classical liberal” land on this diagram? Are they near the center? A little more to the right? to the left? Above or below the horizontal line? To be honest, I’m not sure. I know Sam Harris thinks of himself as a classical liberal, and I know I share some of those values, but what this really means is Sam and I are definitely not in line with the culture of progressive wokeness.
Wait, but I thought I was woke? I thought I was progressive? I’m aware of my privilege and I want the world to keep learning and evolving into a better world, so then the question becomes to what extent are the cultures who refer to themselves as woke and progressive reflect the same values as those of liberalism. I mean, I know a lot of the woke progressives detest liberals, and this means that both the Trump-supporting MAGA hat wearing crowd and those they refer to as “libtards” often both dislike liberals, but I am not sure they are referring to the same groups of people when they use the term liberal.
For me (and, I think, Sam Harris), liberalism is about freedom of thought, speech, and determination in life. The idea is that there isn’t an overbearing cultural or social authority demanding submission to an ideology. No church, political party, or moral framework being imposed from above telling me how to live my life. I can choose to be what I want to be. That’s the gist.
To the MAGA crowd, it means a whiny snowflake artsy type with purple hair, probably a Wiccan, and probably a bunch of homos and lesbos. They are brainwashed and hopelessly naive, and most definitely won’t survive without the mommy state to protect them.
To the Progressive woke Left (which the previous crowd ironically includes within its collective term libtards, obviously derived from “retarded liberals”), “liberals” are the comfortable, entitled, and largely privileged center. They are hurting progress by being (ignorantly) politically tied to the corporate powers, and they are part of the problem. Because while the political Right, including those ubiquitous NAZIs, are the actual drivers of everything awful and bigoted, the liberals are just standing by with their Amazon Prime and brunches to be aware of the struggle against the impending fourth Reich. They are complicit.
In other words, both the Left and the Right view the center as complicit in the other’s destruction of America (or ‘Murica, depending). I mean, those are the framings, anyway. Except those framings are both dubious.
There is a real divide in values here. And while it’s not binary, it’s definitely fractured and potentially irreconcilable. What’s worse, even if one of them were actually more rational, evidence-based, or even just plain right, the other factions would never be able to see it because of the nature of human tribalism and the subsequent demonization and enmity.
So, we’re fucked. Might as well just blow it all up. It’s all corrupt. Let’s just drain the swamp, completely.
Oh fuck, I think I just figured out why we are here, at this political moment….
Where’s my MAGA hat….
And so I’ve found myself having slippery-sloped myself into the centrists’ nest, looking at the Left with distance and the beginnings of distain. I’ve become “problematic” and I’m probably providing cover for the Right and possibly for NAZIs, because I, indeed, will fight for a person’s right to say a thing even if I disagree with them. In fact, for many years part of my signature file on my personal emails is this exact phrase:
I’ll fight for a person’s right to speak so long as that person will, in return, fight to allow me to challenge their opinions as the content of their ideas merit.
This is the core of my ideological values. This is my highest goal. And I think I have found myself uncomfortable with the parts of the Left which are slipping from the libertarian left to the upper, Authoritarian, left.. So when I see memes such as the one below, I feel a pang of agreement.
And then I have the thought; shit, am I an alt-right type, about to be red-pilled at any moment? Do I have to, contractually, start attending Trump rallies?
I sure hope not, because fuck those guys.
I mean, whenever I engage with people on the left, I find we have largely the same goals and beliefs, but I think we might have different values, insofar as some of the Left seem, to me, to be advocating for a kind of world where certain ideas, words, and criticisms are “problematic” and should be ostracized and possibly outlawed. And people get booted from communities for being critical or not toeing the political line. And then I just realized (or was this all a set-up?) that I’m describing how those snowflakes on the Left are so politically correct that they can’t handle any criticism and live in their little “libtard” bubble, and so I might as well go get a MAGA hat, because these questions are obviously binary and you are either with the snowflakes or you are against them.
And it is exactly here where I think the problem exists.
We are Gray. We stand Between the Candle and the Star…
Because these questions are not digital nor binary. We have gotten to a place in our society that there is, for some people (and they are quite vocal) a kind of purity test that one must submit to. That’s how it feels, anyway. That’s not the truth, because the reality is much more nuanced than that, but the arguments on social media are the loudest, most angry, least-nuanced people who are the ones who keep coming back. Any attempt to see the gray areas between positions are not disallowed, but they are quickly scrolled past, at best, or labeled as giving cover by those loud voices.
Because to say something like “NAZIs have the right to speak,” whether or not you add the epithet “fuck NAZIs” is allowing a genuinely awful and destructive set of ideas to exist out loud, in the world. Those woke progressives, doing the necessary fighting against actual NAZIs, will so often bridle at any criticism of them. They are doing holy work, after all. The NAZIs cannot be allowed to return to power, so there is no room for criticism of their methods or ideology, because ACTUAL FUCKING NAZIs!
But this is a cover, and I see right through it. Nobody likes criticism. I’ll bet the Inquisitors would have responded the same way, as they were battling ACTUAL HERETICS! The analogy is weak, I know, because heresy is a label for being wrong about a thing that isn’t even real, and actual NAZIs are real people doing actual harm to real people, but the structure of the defensiveness is the same.
And this is where we need to be able to pay attention. Because whether we are defending our wokeness, our inquisition of heretics, or our Nazism, it is the same set of human behaviors, tribalism, and groupthink at work. That is, it’s not the content of the arguments I’m objecting to (please, keep fighting NAZIs!), but it’s the unwillingness to clean one’s own house.
All criticism must start within one’s own self and one’s own group. It must be built into the fabric of your fight. So that when @centrist_John2472 on Twitter points out that your ideology, method, etc might be irrational or problematic itself, pointing out that you are fighting actual NAZIs sort of misses the point. We need to make each other stronger and better by hearing what we and our loved ones might be doing wrong, openly and enthusiastically, or we risk calcifying orthodoxy into our communities and ideologies.
A Rebel is Gonna Rebel
What happens when you tell a child not to do something? What happens when a word is a “curse” word (the history of that concept is really interesting, btw) or when a certain group is anathema? When you forbid something, it becomes interesting and potentially drawing to people, especially if they are already largely dismissed or socially awkward.
Forbidding words, groups, or ideas might be done with good intention, but it will never work. It’s pragmatically not feasible, and will cause a backlash. You want to understand the alt-Right? just look at human behavior in general. Humans go where they are told they shouldn’t go, and do what they shouldn’t do. How many kinks are formed by this very notion?
That’s why Donald Trump is so loved and revered by so many people; he doesn’t give a fuck. In his case, I think it’s partially narcissism and ignorance as opposed to mere rebellion, but it’s also just classic bad boy entitled swagger. It’s a rebel without a clue nor care.
It’s as American as it gets.
So, to the Left. I’m with you. We need to grow, progress, and make the world better. But the more you make ideas taboo and define yourselves as woke (fellow movement atheists, remember how the Brights were reviled? It’s the same thing), the more you are going to be ignored. The Right will never cede to your wisdom, whether you are right or not. They are just going to be human and tell you to fuck yourself and call you a snowflake, because nobody likes being told what to do. So, enjoy being right and also enjoy watching Trump win again while the Right continues to ignore, not understand, and yet still win on the political stage.
And to the Right, you’re acting like a damned child. You’re selfish and you’re woefully ignorant of so many things. I also know that they are not likely to be reading this, so that was really for the Left as well. Because that’s what they hear from us, and it’s not going to work. If you’re ideas are correct, then argue your points. Because I think we have reality on our side. But first we need to take the self-righteous stick out of our asses. Or we will lose any chance to save the future of this society and culture. We, on the Left, need to drain our own swamp, because we know the Right has no interest in actually doing so.
I think the Right is incorrect in maintaining capitalism and the like. I think a socialist direction is better. But the more we, on the Left, slide into authoritarian thinking, the more the Right will ignore us. So yes, there are real, actual, NAZIs out there. And yes, we have actual homophobic, Christian dominionist, and greedy capitalist politicians supporting this Trump administration and raking in millions while fucking over the environment, the majority of the people, and the place of The United States in the world.
And if they keep up their trajectory then we would not only have a Right wing capitalist society, but eventually it will become more and more authoritarian. And then we truly will be a culture of Right and Left authoritarians yelling at each other, and all the rest of us caught in the middle as the country, and the world, slowly dies. And the Left will lose this fight, almost certainly.
To everyone: stop the authoritarian dictator within yourself, first.
Last night, in a conversation over a couple of beers, an analogy just sort of spontaneously emerged from my brain and spilled out of my mouth.
We are all walking a path of life, each carving a path through a dense forest, and yelling at each other through trees.
Yes, many of us travel in packs, with a few trailblazers hacking away at the brush in front of them with machetes of varying quality and sharpness, defining the cultural path for those behind them. And some, behind them, will wander off into the forest around them, perhaps bumping into other cultural paths, but in general the world is a network of paths being blazed through a forest, leaving the separated groups in the position to yell at each other through trees in order to try and figure out what is going on, where we are, and if there is anywhere to go better than this.
We are a tribalistic species. I’ve written about this all too often over the years. We truly, and literally, don’t understand each other much of the time. A dominant narrative metaphor for the lack of understanding frames this problem in terms of us not sharing a common set of facts, anymore. The political Right, especially those supporting Donald Trump, have a different set of facts than, say, the progressives on the political Left, and neither understands each other.
Now, it’s quite likely that one of those political tribes is closer to “the truth” than others. You may guess which camp I think is closer to such a truth based upon my previous commentary, but the larger issue here is that none of the various political cultures who are contributing to the inter-cultural conversations are likely to be right, in any objective sense.
Wait….”right”? Do I mean in the sense of having facts that cohere to a skeptical methodology which sifts between those ideas supported by evidence from those that do not? Or do we mean right in terms of values?
I’ve written about the false dichotomy between facts and values in the past (see here and here, for example), but I’ll summarize that I don’t think that they are really all that different. We can have wrong values, in the same way we can have wrong facts. With facts, the question is evidence. With values, the question is whether our values support human well-being, fairness, and transparency.
Of course, the larger issue is meta-ethics and such, which is a thorny mess I don’t want to deal with right now. The bottom line, for me, is that if you aren’t concerned with well-being, truth, fairness, etc, then I’m not sure you are interested in being a good person. Why should you care about those things? I’m not interested in playing those sorts of games with people who aren’t. They aren’t acting in good faith, I believe. They are interested in power, control, and manipulation. Those values are not values worth respecting. If you disagree, I will fight you.
But, back to nobody being right….
The problem is that we conflate being more right than someone else with being right in general. I believe that I’m right that there isn’t a god, or more specifically that sets of ideologies such as Christianity or Islam are not real. If I’m talking with someone who believes that Jesus is real, Heaven is real, Hell is real (and I’m going to it), and I believe I am right in not thinking those things are real, I’m not (ideally) claiming that I’m right in the sense that what I actively hold to be true is correct, but rather that I’m right concerning the specific question of whether their religious beliefs are rational or real.
I want to paint this distinction, because I think it’s lost all-too-often in such conversations. In the atheist community, some debaters and thinkers have tried to make it clear that their atheism is merely a “no” to the question “do you believe in god?” In other words, it’s a lack of belief. But, based upon my many such conversations, it often seems that my interlocutor is hearing something else; not merely that “I don’t believe you” but also “my worldview is actually correct, not yours.” Those are quite different claims.
Now, I, of course, do believe my worldview is correct. This is true by definition. If I didn’t believe it, it wouldn’t be my worldview. But it’s a different claim to say “I don’t believe you” and “My worldview is right.”
Because while I do believe my worldview is right, the fact is that none of us has a completely defined, seamless, systematic worldview which covers all possible questions. We don’t carry around a systematically air-tight philosophical theory of the world which can answer all possible questions. We have loosely knitted ideas based off a set of methodologies, and they might not even be logically consistent with each other.
If you ask me about what I think about the Christian concept of sin or what the soul is supposed to be, I can come up with an answer. How I do so is based upon how I organize and coalesce information. I may have a few quick and easy answers (sin is a concept which essentializes us and causes guilt, for example) or even sound bites to pull out of memory (the impermanence of the soul is akin to a flame, waiting to be extinguished ), but worldviews are generated in real time, perpetuated by the way my brain has formed itself through experience, and always subject to change with new experience.
In an analogous way, a political movement, made up of people of related worldviews, is neither right nor systematically defined. The current progressive leftist movement is, in my view, superior to that of the alt-right in terms of both facts and values, but there are processes in the Left which are as flawed as anything in the right. In the absence of an alt-Right to compare it to, the left would be a set of ideas in need of both criticism and improvement. But so long as the alt-Right exists, they are the lesser of evils with a large margin of point-differential, so they have my support until a better movement comes along.
None of the teams are worthy of worship or unquestioned reverence. We need to stop being so attached to groups, parties, and especially our own in-groups (this is my major criticism of hard-core Democrats, right now; loyalty to party over social improvement). I’ve seen too many groups become subject to tribalism, cliquishness, and corruption to even trust any group, no matter how well-intentioned its people are. My recent interactions with the secret Facebook group, Polydelphia, is a prime example of how a group with good intentions can become corrupted and internally ruined by people who think they are doing the right thing.
What to do?
I don’t know. I’m not optimistic. Talking to people from vastly different worldviews was always hard, but it’s much harder right now because of the demonization, cultural bubbles, and enmity which has been created by well-intentioned (in many cases, anyway) social media outlets and meta-narratives which cannot parse fringe movements nor their criticisms (neither can those fringes understand each-other).
But we are trying to get a bird’s-eye view of the forest terrain by yelling through trees at each other. And so far the best ways we have found to do such things is to pull ourselves out of ourselves, to transcend and elevate ourselves above the hacking and slashing. Skepticism, science, and any other methods we can use to minimize bias (both individual and group biases) is the only means we have found, thus far. Seeking ecumenical similarities in religious traditions (for example) as a means to unite us is nothing more than people comparing their paths through the forest, and is unable to transcend the question.
Only by attempting to prove ourselves wrong, through skepticism, can we hope to transcend the forest, or at least draw an accurate map.
So long as we continue to abandon skepticism and the answers it supplies–and both the Left and the Right are doing so–the further way we get from the truth, collectively.
You know what? fuck the Republican party. You know what they did, what they are doing, and what they are likely to keep doing. Fuck them.
Going forward, we need to find a Democrat who can defeat Trump. That’s what matters.
I mean, sort of. But that’s too simple, and it misses the point of something important. let’s build the argument.
The Democrats are the home team, right now.
Aside from the few months I was a Democrat in order to vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary back in 2016, I’ve always been an Independent. I have no political party. I doubt I ever will have one for more time than it might take to vote in a primary.
Right now, I like the Democratic party much more than I like the Republican party. It’s an easy choice to make. That is, if I had to back one of them I would not hesitate to support the DNC in this moment in history.* The attempts of the House of Representatives to find some justice and the truth in their investigations into the doings of people around Donald Trump related to obstruction of justice, corruption, bribery, hush money, and potential cooperation with Russian attempts to alter the public opinions and actions around the 2016 elections is something we should stand behind.
But, did you notice the heading of this section? Yeah, see I’m clever like that and I intentionally wanted to invoke that process in your brain that cheers for the home team and boos when the other team scores. I wanted to get the circuits of tribalism flowing in your head, because some of you read that paragraph above and you were like “fuck yes!” and some of you, maybe, were more like “fake news!” Maybe a few of you were like ‘dude, I totally saw what you were doing and am not impressed with your bashing the point over my head with that over-sized cartoon sledgehammer.’
And you’re right, keen observer of my overtly obvious point.
And yet, still, I’m compelled. I do believe that Donald Trump is, in objective fact, corrupt and criminally guilty. In addition to his ample personality flaws, he’s also done illegal things and should not be in a position of power. He surrounds himself with cons, liars, and ethically dubious people who do his bidding to enrich themselves. That narrative is, to some extent, just the truth. If you disagree, well I think you are just factually wrong.
So, the democrats are the good team, then, right?
No. That’s a false dichotomy. Yes, I also know that this point was obvious from the start.
Your friends are great. Fuck your friends.
It’s nice to have friends. They have your back when things get tough. They give you advice that you need from time to time, and are good fun on occasion, as well. We need friends. We need people we trust in our lives.
And aren’t you glad you cut some people out of your life? You know, the people who were assholes that time? The people who you used to like, but now they are evil?
It’s sort of bizarre how easy it is for a person to be your friend, having your back and giving you advice or feedback, to being not a friend and suddenly they are not available for either. There is a strange cognitive switch that sort of goes off in some of these situations, and over time you may even wonder how you could have been, at one time, friends with this person.
In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this cognitive phenomenon, and I’m fascinated by it. It has made me reconsider many things about the nature of friendship and the alienation of being mad at/hurt by someone. And this has had a major effect on how I view the concepts of trauma and desires for “justice” or whatever.
I don’t want to dwell on that and that’s not the point of this post, directly. I also don’t have any solid conclusions, but I do have a lot of skepticism about the various narratives about such things which I know will rub many people the wrong way. And the implications of this skepticism is already alienating me from people who are, in some sense, allies.
But, to go back to the point of this post, which is about politics overtly with the minor tangentially relevant analogy of all things related to people, groups, and cultures, I’m of the opinion that I don’t care to support the democratic party. I’m of the opinion that supporting individual candidates, who may or may not be members of that party, is more important than supporting the party itself.
Fuck the Democratic party
This is the nuance that I am seeing which some people I know don’t seem to see. Yes, the Democrats in congress are playing an important political and historical role, right now, by initiating certain investigations and by (hopefully) shifting the party to the left and being more inclusive of people who have, traditionally and historically, had less of a political voice.
But fuck the party
You know why? Because every time a group of people comes together to work on something as a group, shit gets done. But, also, when people start to identify with that group, the almost necessary product of such an association is to out-group the people who don’t. That is where tribalism starts.
No, Bernie Sanders isn’t a loyal member of your team. He doesn’t identify as a Democrat. He sees running as a Democrat to be useful for him, in terms of running, and you’re mad because he’s not supporting the party at large. Well, why the hell should he? Why should anybody have to demonstrate loyalty to a party? Why is loyalty to a party a good thing? Notice the nuance between working with a party to get shit done and loyalty and identity with such a group.
If you cared about having a good candidate, with good ideas, who can possibly do good things for the country as a whole, then why would that person have to be a member of one of your parties? Why the fuck is that a good thing?
Fuck your stupid party.
Fuck Bernie Sanders
Actually, I like Bernie Sanders. He was the first (and, so far only) political candidate whose campaign I gave money to. If he were nominated, I’d be happy. I don’t necessarily think he’s the best candidate for the upcoming election, and I might prefer someone else, but I’m Ok with him and would support him.
But fuck Bernie Sanders. And fuck his loyal followers, especially.
Are you confused yet?
Ok, let me see if I can clarify
If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him
Everyone who knows me is aware that I’m not a big fan of religion in general. Christianity is a plague upon the world. Islam is a silly yet dangerous thing. Judaism is problematic for so many reasons. Hinduism and its various sub-religions are silly, especially as it’s sold in the West as a bunch of platitudes and stretching. And Buddhists are threatening to (and sometimes actually are) killing Muslims. Pretty much all religion is problematic, either overwhelmingly so or merely in part.
But we need to keep in mind that religion overlaps with philosophy, in many respects. The Bible has some wonderful literature (I like Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms and Proverbs, for example). The Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita are all largely lovely. There are even parts of the Koran which are poetic and lovely. And Buddhism has many pearls of wisdom worth paying attention to. Not to mention the Dao de Jing, which is overwhelmingly impressive and absolutely worth reading.
But one thing that keeps coming back to mind, for me, is the heading for this section. Another formulation is this Buddhist koan:
“If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”– Linji
This koan is a mind-puzzle for you to ponder, as I believe it has many interpretations and many uses. In this case I think what it might point to is the problem of deifying or idolizing certain people, groups, or ideas. I think that it has relevance to how we look at our heroes as well as our enemies.
If you are not a Trumpster, you might see Donald Trump as the idol of all that is wrong with people and the world in general. Let’s be real for a second though, ok? He’s just a spoiled, immensely privileged, and largely clueless man who probably didn’t really want his position anyway, and has no idea what to do and has been doing illegal and immoral things for decades, hidden behind his celebrity, which he would have probably gotten away with if he weren’t president.
He’s not the devil, the antichrist, or even a criminal master villain. He’s a very flawed human being surrounded by leeches and fixers who have been pulled out of the swamp and into the light, and they are now drying up in the hot exposure of the sun. Instead of draining the swamp, he’s dragged many of his hangers-on out of the swamp and put them on the dry land above for us all to see.
Sure, politics has always been corrupt and slimy, but perhaps not until now (at least in the U.S.) had the lower swamp scum been in this position, and the nakedness of the sliminess is both a relief and a shock to us because we are used to it being better attired.
But it makes me wonder whether part of the phenomena which is this moment is history is that we do not kill our Buddhas when we meet them. In other words, we aren’t willing to tell our heroes, revered institutions, and even our culture to go fuck itself, often enough.
We are too attached to the things we identify with.
Self criticism is the beginning of destroying tribalism
What do you love? What do you value? What do you hate? What is your identity?
When we identify with a person, group, culture, nation, etc, we start to project ourselves onto those things. And as those things are challenged, questioned, or not taken seriously, it’s as if we are being attacked ourselves. This is about as universal as a human experience as anything I can think of.
It’s well past time to enthusiastically consent to being challenged, questioned, and not taken seriously. It’s time to tell ourselves and our identities to fuck off and die already. Not literally, of course. But it is time to take ourselves, our values, and especially the groups we identify with way less seriously.
Every friend group, every facebook group, every subculture experiences drama and in-fighting. Rifts occur, people are ostracized, and enmities form and eventually calcify to become the structure of the group itself. It becomes the identity of the group and its members.
Activists within the DNC really don’t tend to like Bernie Sanders right now. And Bernie supporters are really mad at the DNC. Both sets of people have reasons to be mad. They aren’t incorrect. That isn’t the issue. The issue is that they are taking it personally and therefore unable to transcend the fray and see it as if they were an outsider. What we need is a political and cultural version of the Outsider Test for Faith.
Not enough of us have killed our Buddha, upon meeting them. We have not told ourselves to fuck off.
And until we are all willing to tell ourselves to fuck off, we’re fucking ourselves, collectively.
*Also, fuck the Green party, the Libertarian party, and all the other parties. Fuck all the things.
Back in the George W. Bush years, and as a person very active in the atheist community, I took note of how the GOP and the conservative Christian world continued to be wedded. And, today, the same thing is true of Trump world, and it’s just more of the same. Well, more terrifying.
There was a time, well before my time, when the GOP was a quite different party. Remember, this party was originally the party of Lincoln, and while it certainly was never ideal (as if any group of people could be), it was a laudable party which managed to defend the Union during a crisis which almost tore the nation apart.
Although, in some senses, it did. Because here we are, a country divided, and the points of division are, in many ways, historically connected to the ones that had us shooting at each other a century and a half ago. There are reasons why a lot of Trump supporters wave the rebel flag, after all.
The Bush Years
I did a lot of protesting, reading, and some writing about the growing alliance between the GOP and the evangelical Christian world which became more and more obvious after September 11th, 2001. At the time, most “liberals” (the term “progressive” had not caught on yet, if I recall correctly) thought that George W. Bush was the dumbest, most embarrassing, and most damaging president America could have had. His administration was highly problematic for many reasons, but the Christians loved him.
He was one of them, after all.
Super-patriotic and conservative Christian jingoism started to appear in popular political narratives in a way that most Americans had not ever seen before. The existing culture wars ramped up to a degree that we had not seen before. We didn’t think it could get much worse. We thought that our nation was on the brink of collapse. The Christians thought it was because of the impending apocalypse, and other people foresaw endless wars which would leave America a wasteland.
We were so naïve…
Back in 2006, there was a series of events called “Battle Cry” which were run by a Christian organization called Teen Mania Ministries (which closed in 2015). They would rent out large stadiums where thousands of Christians would listen to bad Christian rock, patriotic music and images would be everywhere, and a message warning their audience about the dangers of secular media, culture, etc. And, as I observed in an article I published in a local Communist newspaper at the time, and later published at the Rational Response Squad (and which I host a copy of here), it really came across as a way for hungry Christian media to deal with its secular competition.
In other words, it was a way to control where such largely white, evangelical, suburban/rural, conservative, middle class people got their information, and to make sure it was from the Christian media, artists, etc.
Is this starting to sound familiar?
Building the Base for an Alternative
I don’t have any data to support this idea, but I think that a lot of the teenagers I saw at this event (I attended the one in Philadelphia, upon invitation from the organizers), as well as their parents who drove them to it, are predominantly Trump supporters today.
Ron Luce, the organizer of these events, saw his purpose as influencing a generation. In other words, he wanted to create a generation of people who would get their information from wholesome, Christian, and patriotic sources. His book talks all about this. In other words, many evangelical leaders, associated with conservative causes and therefore the GOP, have been making a concerted effort to groom a generation or two of Americans to ignore a large segment of media sources in order to control the narrative that those people hear.
In the case of the Bush years, it was the “secular media” and it’s demonic influence on our children (“won’t somebody please think of the children!”). Ron Luce and his organizations, including these Battle Cry events of 2006 (which were only a few of many similar efforts in American culture at the time) were a way to advertise the various Christian alternatives to music, news, and other sources of entertainment and information.
From the episode of South park called “Christian Rock Hard”, we see Cartman being awful, but simultaneously demonstrating something true; a lot of Christian music is just stealing from the secular alternatives, and that Christians would figure this out and make a lot of money from it in America.
What’s worse is that their offerings were a pale alternative, blithely and badly copied in form but not in content in order to be “righteous” and godly. Just think about how much Christian music is a lot like secular music. In the South Park episode referred to above, the plot is lampooning the fact that changing love song lyrics to say “Jesus” rather than “baby” or whetever was how Christian music worked, in many cases. But so long as the kids were listening to that, and not the devil’s music, then they might not be tempted by Satan.
The fact that the Christian marketing companies had a bunch of things to sell them and which were present at such events was, well, just convenient I guess.
Seth Andrews has talked about this as well:
It’s a brilliant strategy, from a marketing point of view, and it largely worked. There is a whole alternative universe which Christian kids grew up in which has a lot of parallels to the one I grew up in, but it’s isolated and insulated enough to keep the home-schooled evangelicals pretty ignorant, at least until they reach the outside world. I’ve met many of these people who grew up in said environments, even dated a couple of them after they escaped.
What this creates is a template for creating quite distinct sub-cultures, fed by very different sets of media, worldviews, and even facts.
And since those years we have seen the division of where Americans get their information widen, until we get to the last few years which will likely be known, to historians, as…
The Trump Years
You know, the age of “alternative facts.”
For decades, conservative radio, the evangelical Christian sub-culture, and many conspiracy-theory laced sources have been cultivating more rural, conservative, and largely older people to distrust the admittedly problematic corporate and mainstream sources of news and entertainment which dominated places like where I grew up.
As the internet grew, there were all sorts of weird corners for such people to gather, and as they started to coalesce, meet, and work together, some realized that there was a market here. Hence such people as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Alex Jones became household names. There is an impulse and maybe even an instinct that such people, and their messages, link onto in an unskeptical and uncritical mind.
So, you know how The Daily Show, back when it was hosted by Jon Stewart, spent years making fun of Fox News and other conservative outlets of information? You know how it lead to a spinoff of Stephen Colbert, for 9 years, mocking Bill “Papa Bear” O’Reilly? And you know how conservatives totally watched those shows, and subsequently became self-aware that they were being duped?
Yeah, that last part probably isn’t true. But we libtards surely got a kick out of laughing at them dupes. I wonder why they are mad at us….
And you know how it seems like people who hate trump and people who love trump seem to get their information from different universes? It’s almost like there has been a concerted, overtly-stated, effort to get conservatives who lean towards the evangelical side of the culture to learn how to ignore a large swath of sources (whether “secular” in the Bush years or “mainstream” later on) in favor of trusted, reliable, “fair and balanced” sources? Or, you know, to resent those mainstream and liberal sources for laughing at them all the time and feeling elite about it all?
It really seems as if a large segment of American culture has been groomed to be controlled and manipulated, while being told it was everyone else who was being manipulated. It’s a classic technique used by abusers of all sorts, to control the narrative and point at other people for doing what they, themselves, are doing (even if they aren’t aware they are doing so). Many of my family who are conservative consider me to be the one who is brainwashed. Perhaps you think so too.
If you do, I don’t think you know me very well.
And, as many of us in the atheist community used to try to argue (before we were distracted by rifts related to feminism and such), it’s the tools of religion; faith, sacredness, righteousness, etc which are at fault. Wielded by the right people, these tools are great at controlling large amounts of people, as the history of religion has taught us. And over the last few decades, conservative Christians have had a lot of practice honing their skills at utilizing marketing techniques and religion to influence politics and culture. And here we are, now, in a world where Donald Trump is considered, by many evangelicals, to be sent by God to lead us through these times.
The Battle Cry seems to have worked. Ron Luce’s efforts seem to have come to fruition. Congratulations, I guess, but I still feel a little like crying.
I cannot prove that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between these movements during the Bush years and now, but it seems a reasonable line of argument to entertain, and it fits in so many ways. It exemplifies what is worst about the religious instincts:
Tribalism: in-group/out-group separation of people. (whether it be Christians/sinners or MAGAheads/”Libtard cucks”)
The preference for sacred or trusted sources of information while simultaneously shunning other, contradictory, sources (whether it be the Bible/secularism or Fox News etc/”lamestream media”)
the cult-like defense of and adoration of a central figure (whether Jesus or The Donald)
The lack of ACTUAL skepticism, as opposed to lip service to rationality. If you’ve ever read “sophisticated theology,” then you know what rationalization looks like, as opposed to rationality, logic, and skeptical analysis. Similarly, if you’ve ever talked to a Trump supporter use logic, you know what I mean, as well.
Where we are in history, right now as Americans, cannot be a surprise if we look back at the culture in which we have lived. And to the people out there who didn’t, and perhaps still don’t, see the effect that faith and religious conviction is having our culture, and how it will continue to effect our politics and history, then all I say is you are probably helping it to repeat, or at least rhyme, in the future. In other words, your respect for religious traditions in the face of their harm is fucking us over.
Please, more skepticism. Those teenagers at Battle Cry 13 years ago are now adults. And insofar as the efforts of people like Ron Luce and the many other Christian organizations who saw an opportunity to drive a wedge between people and a secular, rational, and potentially better future were successful in their efforts, we now have a significant percentage of people who unfailingly support this historical disaster.
I overhear Trump supporters often. They are not cartoonishly evil or stupid people. They are just convinced they are right, like everyone else, and are largely uninterested or unimpressed by what other sources say, because they think they already understand. This is one of the reasons when I hear anyone, especially myself, sounding self-righteous or overly certain, I’m skeptical. This is one of the reasons I am critical of even people on “my” side, because I don’t want to be part of a tribe in the same way.
I want to make sure I’m not subject to the groupthink that takes over groups, so I’m critical of people I’m allied with.
It’s easy to mock creationists, flat-Earthers, or people who believe that the reptilians control the world. But what if the people in your tribe start talking about how dangerous vaccinations are or how the new lady congresspeople are all stupid feminazi drones?
And remember, even if Trump is impeached, we still have to deal with Mike Pence.
A thought occurred to me today while having a conversation on Facebook.
I know, I know…why am I wading into Facebook conversations? It never solves anything, right? Right. Nonetheless, here we are.
So, the question was whether we choose our beliefs or not, and my position is that we do not choose our beliefs, and gave a brief explanation why. But something that someone said made me wonder whether cognitive dissonance is related to the feeling of having chosen a belief, and then something clicked home for me.
Let’s set the stage….
Choosing Beliefs: free will
So, whether we choose what we believe is related to the question of free will. I mean, if free will weren’t real, then of course we don’t choose our beliefs because our beliefs would be a function of our will which is not free, right? This touches on the concept of compatibilism, which essentially states that if the action or cognitive state reached is consistent with the desires and aims of the entity which performs said act or concludes the said idea, then the act is said to be “free” insofar as as it is what the entity wants.
In other words, if you eat ice cream and you wanted to eat ice cream, even if it were the case that you could not have done otherwise, then because the act was what you wanted to do then the act was chosen “freely.” Alternatively, if you were coerced or forced to do so by another person, then it is not a free choice. If someone force-feeds you ice cream, whether or not you wanted to do so the act was not “free.”
Let’s put the larger question of general free will aside. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that our will is free in some meaningful sense. So that when I pick up my phone to look at it, I chose to do so (and am not merely addicted to my phone, like some haters might argue). Where does this leave us in terms of beliefs?
What is a Belief?
If you believe something, you are accepting it as true that a thing is real or true. One does not need absolute certainty to believe something, although perhaps it’s good to have a good epistemological foundation upon which to support that belief.
Of course, an astute reader might stop me there and say “Hold on! If you’re claim is that we don’t choose our beliefs, wouldn’t saying that we should have good reasons to believe something pull the rug out from under you, from the start? Wouldn’t it imply that you should only choose the well-supported ideas as your beliefs?”
And that astute reader may have started to see where I’m going with this post. We’ll get there.
For now, what I want to define is what I think a belief is, and not how we should get there. If I say that I believe there is a cat in that box, then I’m saying that I accept it as a real state of the universe that this particular box has a cat in it. It does not mean I can prove that there is one, necessarily, or even that the available evidence is sound or even available to be evaluated. It merely means that I have accepted it as a fact, or a true proposition, but it does not necessarily mean that I know it. (Knowledge is another can of worms, completely).
It has no necessary connection to the truth of whether there actually is a cat in the box; I could be wrong, but I currently believe that there is a cat in the box. My reasons are not relevant to the mere question of belief per se.
Epistemology is the philosophical study of why I’m right and you’re wrong. OK, it’s not quite that, but it’s the study of how we know, why we know, and ultimately it studies the tools we use to create justifications for the truth of propositions.
So, you believe there is a cat in the box. Why do you believe that? How did you come to that conclusion? Does it feel true to you? Can you see a cat in the hole in the box? Is there a meowing sound coming from inside the box? Did you open the box and see a cat in there?
There are gradations of evidence for the belief, and some of them will be more rationally justified, and convincing to people, than others. If you merely feel like there is a cat in the box, but when we shake it it feels light and no hissing and cat noises ensue, then maybe your feeling is wrong. Maybe the meowing sound is a recording being played on a speaker in the box? Maybe it’s a fake cat you see through the hole in the box. Maybe you’re hallucinating both a cat and a box, and in reality there is not even a box at all. Maybe you’re in the matrix, and there is also no spoon.
In short, epistemology is the study of whether the belief is justified but it is also the study of how we come to conclusions which are justified to different extents.
So, how did you come to this belief?
Are you even consciously aware of how you came to believe in your theory of cats in boxes? Did you earn a PhD in cat-in-box-ology? Did you try to open the box and pet the cat? Did you take the cat out of the box because you were trying to put something else in it when your cat decided the box belonged to her? What was the method you used to come to this belief?
And that leads into the next question.
What would it be like if you were wrong?
If it weren’t the case that a cat was in the box, what would that imply about other things you believe and would it affect you in some significant way? If the cat were an illusion, or otherwise just not there, would it shatter your worldview? Would it be painful or somehow life-altering if it were the case that your belief were not true?
How does it feel, and what thoughts do you have, if someone tells you there is no cat in the box? Does it make you curious? Angry? Do you feel pity for the poor deluded fool who can’t perceive the cat? Also, can you actually perceive the cat yourself, or are you inferring it from something else? Maybe you were raised in a home where everyone believed there was a cat in the box, and so you just sort of accepted it from an early age and so the idea seems natural, automatic, and, well…did you ever really choose to believe that the cat was in the box?
I mean…of course you did. Right? You looked at the box. There was something moving in there. You thought you heard a meow. Besides, the box says “cat inside,” and why would someone write that on a box with no cat in it? You really thought about this, and you decided that a cat was in the box. You’re sure. Mostly.
Ok, let’s forget about the damned cat for a minute, and let’s talk about something else. You decide to pick up a newspaper, and you see that it says that your local baseball team won the game last night. Great! that’s awesome. And you believe it, because the newspaper said so. I mean, newspapers make mistakes, but not often of more trivial and easily provable things like this, so you accept it as true, even if only provisionally, because there is evidence which is generally reliable to support it.
But what if someone said “hey, the newspaper made a mistake about last night’s game, and they actually lost in the bottom of the 9th”? What happens then? Did your belief in the outcome of the game waver or change? Did you choose that wavering or shift in belief? Did you, consciously, say to yourself that the question of the result of the game is in the air, epistemologically, and you now choose to believe that they in fact lost? Or did the belief just sort of shift, without you seeing the process take place, and appear in your consciousness without any actual conscious process driving it?
Or this. You see a man steal a candy bar from a convenience store. Did you consciously choose to accept this as reality, or were you convinced by the direct evidence that you saw with your own eyes. I want to emphasize the word “convince” here, because it indicates something happening to you, not you doing something. You became convinced by an experience.
It’s possible you mis-saw what happened; maybe the man actually paid for it already and is just grabbing it now. Maybe he’s the owner of the store, and it’s really his candy bar. But you believe he just stole it, because you saw the evidence (even if you might be wrong). Could you choose to believe that he didn’t steal it? You could conceive of alternative explanations, but until you actually become convinced, whether through rational analysis* or through new information that he didn’t steal it, you will believe that he stole it.
Did you choose to believe that you cannot fly like superman?
You did? Great. Now choose to believe that you can fly like superman.
You can’t, can you?
What’s the problem? You did choose in the first place, right? You were convinced by the evidence of the possibilities of such things, and then chose to believe it, right? Or was it that the belief appeared in your consciousness because of the evidence in its favor? And the only way you could believe otherwise is to see new evidence of your newfound ability to fly.
You do not choose your beliefs. You become convinced of things due to feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Your inability to simply hop from genuine (as opposed merely asserted) belief to belief at your mere whim demonstrates this.
So how is it the case that people believe things that are wrong? If beliefs are the result of evidence, then shouldn’t we only believe things which are evident? Ideally, yes, but there are all sorts of cognitive biases, errors on thinking and perceptions, and deceptions (both external and internal) at play here.
You believe that someone at work hates you, and is trying to ruin your career. You have seen all the evidence and it worries you. They are always short with you, snippy even. And you had that idea at the meeting which they shot down immediately in front of everyone. She didn’t come to the after work happy hour you organized, even though she came to the other one last month. She never talks to you. She probably plots and schemes at home on how to ruin your life. The evidence is obvious, right?
Well, maybe she doesn’t like you. Maybe she despises you even more than your worst fantasies could ever conjure up. Or, maybe, all of these pieces of evidence have other explanations, and she actually thinks you’re a good employee and thinks highly, or maybe just neutral, about you. It’s very easy to have beliefs that are incorrect for all sorts of reasons.
But you’re convinced anyway. Another co-worker says that you are reading into things too much, and she’s short with most people most of the time. She is always speaking up in meetings with ideas and being critical, even with her best friend who she sees all the time after work for drinks. That’s just who she is.
No, you believe she has it out for you. You’ve become convinced and invested in this belief, and if the belief is challenged then a part of your brain sort of reacts against the other evidence and rejects it, perhaps almost imperceptibly. It’s not quite painful, but it’s uncomfortable. The claim just bumps up against your belief and bounces off. You are experiencing cognitive dissonance.
And the more contradictory information you receive, perhaps the more your belief sticks. And maybe, just maybe, as the evidence starts to mount against your belief the feeling of believing it starts to feel more and more like a choice. The more evidence that she likes you–she invites you to lunch with some people, she compliments your work, she nods her head at the next meeting in reaction to your idea–the more the belief that she actually hates you and wants to destroy you starts to feel like you are choosing to believe it because you are actively maintaining it, even if only unconsciously.
And if I came to you on a day or time while you were thinking about your co-worker and asked you whether we choose our beliefs you say yes; you do choose your beliefs. Perhaps not all of them, but this belief feels like a choice right now, and you are a free, curious, and intelligent person not merely subject to the random whims of random chance in terms of what you believe about the world. Your beliefs are rational, reasonable, and you have given them thought, so of course you choose them.
But that doesn’t address how you came to believe it in the first place. Because the initial question is not “are you choosing to believe this now,” it’s “how did you come to this belief?” It’s well-known that many of our reasons for our beliefs are post-hoc rationalizations, and not the reason we originally came to the belief itself (as I have written about before) ; not how to hold onto, rationalize, or explain your beliefs, but how you came to accept it as true. In other words, we need to be able to distinguish between the origin of a belief and our mind’s ability to maintain, defend, or rationalize a belief after it has made a home in our brain.
And in most cases, I don’t think we know how we started to believe something, especially when it comes to things like religious, political, or larger worldview beliefs. If you really think about where your beliefs come from, you may often be left without a clue. All the justifications that start to perculate up are an after-the-fact rationalization of the thing that’s already there, even if your belief is actually true, rational, and strongly evidenced. You didn’t choose it, you became convinced for good, bad, or mixed good/bad causes and reasons.
Beliefs: Rationalizations versus origins
As I reflect on some of my more certain, core beliefs, I don’t feel a sense of defending or actively maintaining the belief. I feel no cognitive dissonance when I think “this computer is in front of me” or “the world seems like a collection of material things interacting in complicated ways.” But I do feel some cognitive dissonance if I think “Nas’ Illmatic is the best rap album of all time”.
See, I love that album, and I have a fair amount of emotional investment in thinking it’s the best rap album because of my love for it. But I’m also aware that there is evidence out there that it’s not the best rap album. There are some pretty damned good Wu-Tang albums, for example. Also, there are a lot of good albums I probably don’t know about which may be better. I feel, while thinking those words, that I’m actively rationalizing the answer in real time, mostly unconsciously, and it feels more like I’m choosing that belief. I feel the power of having made that choice, but the feeling of having made the choice is not the origin of the belief, it is the experience of rationalizing the belief.
I’ve been fooled to think I chose the belief because of the process of rationalizing the belief, which probably isn’t the reason I came to that belief, is associated with the origin of the belief in my mind. Now, it might be the case that Nas’ Illmatic is in fact the best rap album of all time, but that’s not really relevant here. What’s relevant is that this belief came about through processes I’m not conscious of at all and perhaps could never understand, so it couldn’t possibly be a choice. The rationalizations I come up with later, consciously, may have nothing whatsoever to do with the initial reason. But even if it did, there is no way for me to know this, at least not completely.
And while it’s important to be able to justify our beliefs and be open to allowing those beliefs to change (notice that this is, again, something that happens to us and not something we do) based upon further information and experience, we should be aware that this process is separate from how the belief came to exist in the first place. So, if we have free will and can choose the rational processes by which we justify our beliefs, because we don’t have access to the processes by which the belief formed, we can’t have chosen the belief.
OK dude, what’s your point?
Perhaps it is the case (and I’m not convinced of this yet, and therefore do not believe it, but it’s a compelling thought) that there is a correlation, and mayhap even a causal relationship, between the sensation of choosing a belief and the presence of cognitive dissonance. Therefore, the strength of the feeling of choosing a belief is a sign of the belief itself being in jeopardy.
If I hold a belief, but the evidence seems to contradict or at least challenge it, then as I think about the challenge I have to actively justify the belief. This may cause the sensation of choosing it because I’m being forced to justify my belief fresh, which feels like a choice. But, maybe, if the challenges to my belief result in no sensation of choosing the belief, this might be a sign that cognitive dissonance is not present, and maybe I’m not seeing any conflict with my belief at all.
It could also mean I’m dense, stubborn, or simply not understanding the counter-evidence, but I’m finding it compelling that there might be a relationship here, which I will have to give more thought to.
When a challenge comes to a core belief, such as the earth being relatively spherical, from (let’s say) a flat-Earth proponent, I certainly do have to bring to mind the justifications for my belief, but he feeling of choosing this belief is weak if not nonexistent in this case. The attempts at counter-arguments simply don’t have enough power to bring about the sensation of choosing to believe the earth is round, it’s just there, unperturbed.
But how about whether psychic ability is real? I’m convinced it’s not, and I belief it’s a fraud or a delusion when people claim it’s real, but there is a sensation of the belief being chosen as I really think about it. It’s not inherently impossible, after all. I could imagine ways it might happen, given the right kinds of biological hardware and processes. There is enough room for doubt, that as I think about it the sensation of choosing this belief is more present. But, again, this is the sensation of the justification process, not the origin of the belief. To touch the core belief, the evidence would have to be overwhelming and that, if it ever happened, would be the cause of a new belief (a belief in psychic abilities) which would be new and never completely understood, but only later justified.
So maybe we should keep in mind that the belief that belief is a choice is a sign of cognitive dissonance? Or at least a sign that the belief is being justifiably challenged?Maybe I should try to believe that, and see how well it pans out.
I don’t know, I’m not quite convinced, but it’s an interesting idea to keep in mind and pay attention to, going forward. If it were true that the feeling of choosing a belief were related to a belief being exposed, threatened, and potentially subject to replacement, then it might be worth paying more attention to when people claim they choose their beliefs as possibly more open to having their minds changed.
Then again, someone who says they choose their beliefs and who are also convinced that they cannot be wrong are probably not worth talking to. In other words, I should stay off of Facebook.
*One might be tempted to point out that this internal rational analysis is the point where one chooses to believe. But even if we accept that the rational analysis itself was chosen, the belief comes as a result of the analysis, automatically, based on the soundness of the analysis and your ability to understand it. If you think 1+1=2, and you understand what all those symbols/words mean, then you have no choice but to accept it as true. You don’t choose to believe 1+1=2, you become convinced by the meanings of the symbols and their relation to each other, regardless of whether you chose to think that specific analytical thought.