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.
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.
There is a distinction between trusting a person and trusting their ideas. Even the worst people can be right, even if they use the truth as a weapon. If you seek true understanding, it is worth paying attention to the criticism we receive, even if that bouquet of criticism is delivered with brickbats.
I have always been a person who is interested in self-improvement and introspective knowledge. This set of self-challenging ideals has been a large source of motivation for myself over the years, and it is not something which is likely to change. This predilection had led me to gain some fairly significant insight into not only myself, but of the people around me. The more intimate I am with them, the more I understand them. And while I’m nowhere near always right, the value here comes in that we have the ability to see where others cannot. Being even partially right where another cannot see at all is better than the myopia that would result in ignoring that perspective completely.
The knowledge gained from these perspectives can be used in ways that are loving, and ways that are not. And depending on all sorts of factors, such as our own emotional maturity, levels of selfishness and security, etc, that knowledge can be used in a myriad of ways both good and bad. If a person severely hurt, depressed, or otherwise behaviorally compromised then that understanding can become a weapon. It’s a part of being human.
And sometimes shit gets hard, and when we’re afraid and hurt what we know can become clothed in the ability to hurt other people. When this happens to me, for example, my intellectual understanding does not simply go away, it just gets loaded into a (metaphorical) gun. I’ve been hurt (let’s say), some way or another, and I know something relevant to the situation or to the person involved. And now I’m going to use that knowledge to re-direct that pain. I’m going to take that truth, wrap it in a napkin of my pain, and I’m going to show the person who hurt me how I feel.
It’s an unhealthy reaction, but it is a human one. I do not believe that this ability, propensity, and even occasional desire is unique or even rare; I think it’s part of being human, especially during difficult times in our lives. And when times get difficult, people hurt each other. And when people hurt each other, the ability to see nuance, truth, and even to recognize the truth in what people say is lost in the mire of that pain.
This is very unfortunate, and I believe that it is a mistake to ignore or distrust an idea simply because of it’s source. Skepticism asks us to seek evidence, and sometimes data comes from places that we may wish we had never gone, but it is data nonetheless. Ignoring an idea simply because the way it reached us was painful is a reactionary and emotional response, not a skeptical one.
When we dismiss a person, even the truth that they might have had for us gets thrown away as well. In my darkest moments, when I’m least certain, I might think that a person who has criticized me cruelly is completely right about me. But this is merely one side of a spectrum. Because other times, when feeling more secure, I think that that person is completely wrong, and therefore I don’t need to keep in consideration their opinion. How are these two things not the same error?
While we all can mock the words of a person we have dismissed as deplorable (and often for good reason), might it be that those words might have something to teach us, and that we are only dismissing them because those words were wrapped in pain and weaponized?
Is it possible to learn from the content of painful words, even from painful people? Can even pacifists learn from the technology of war?
Blind Spots and Bad Drivers
No matter how self-aware I am or become, there are always aspects of myself that I cannot see, at least not well. As I go through my life, I have built up habits which, as I “drive”through life I cannot see unless I specifically turn my attention to them. But I have to be willing to look at at them. And sometimes it’s painful to look in that direction, because that section of my universe may have emotional associations which I prefer to avoid, ignore, or forget.
It’s quite easy to forget (or to avoid) to look in that direction, as a result. It’s much more pleasant, and easier, not to. As an actively defensive driver (and yes, this is somewhat of a metaphor as well), I will keep an eye, sometimes, on where cars are relative to me and anticipate when a car is moving into my blind spots. Thus, sometimes I know a car is there even if I am not looking. But my attention is not perfect, and so if I plan on changing lanes, I need to peek anyway.
Especially if I’m tired, hurt, or otherwise emotionally distracted. I need to build up the habit to check where I can only see when I intentionally move my attention. And sometimes I need other people, even ones I may not like, to help me see those blind spots. Because quite often the people we clash with see things within ourselves that we do not like to see, and whether or not we trust their intentions, their perspective can often see what we cannot.
But here we need to be careful, because there are people who want to manipulate, control, and influence us in a direction that is not necessarily in our favor. There are people in the world who, despite being able to see some of the problems with our behavior and may, potentially, have something to teach us, they are more focused on their own interests to actually help us. They might tell us there is something in that blind spot which is not there (they may be projecting or are directly trying to deceive us). They may not tell you there is something there because they may think it’s not a big deal or whatever. Or, they just may not see it either, and are just as blind to that spot as you are.
And such people may leave us hurt, traumatized, and possibly less trusting. In those cases, we are then subject to over-compensating and becoming too focused on our own perspectives, and then we start to change lanes without looking. Trusting our own judgment is good, but sometimes it is the judgment of others, especially those who have hurt us, which we need especially because it is painful. There is a reason certain things are painful, and sometimes it’s because some truth is painful. In order to grow, we need to look at difficult truths and be willing to make effort to understand. Growth does not come from personal avoidance and people willing to simply be content with your own parochial myopia. Love and friendship is not merely celebrating what’s important to you, what you want, and what you can see. That is much closer to submissiveness to a quasi-narcissism than to love.
Challenge v. Control
I’ve been through, in my life, many experiences where people attempted (and often succeeded) to control me. I am also guilty of, in moments of fear, insecurity, and uncertainty, attempting (and sometimes succeeding) to control other people. I don’t like doing it, at all. I don’t want to do it, either. However, it’s part of the human dynamic and the distinction between the desire to help and to control is sometimes a very fine line, one which sometimes even the person perpetrating the advice/control cannot see. Navigating such treacherous waters is difficult on all sides, and only a few people actually want to and enjoy the kind of intentional manipulation of that control.
And when a person has found themselves in the position of being controlled, manipulated, and influenced too much, the reaction is often to become less accepting of opinion, of trying to trust their own instincts, and to sometimes close themselves off to what people who have hurt them have to say. And in many cases, this is for very good reason. But I am of the (probably controversial) opinion that it is especially the people who have hurt us that have the most to teach us.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that people who are abusive and controlling are right, especially about our character. What I am saying is that often pain comes from truth, even if that truth is twisted and deformed for the purposes of that control and abuse. The affect such people often have on us is so real because a true thing has been used as a weapon. The fact that a hammer can be used to hurt or kill does not invalidate the usefulness of the hammer in building all sorts of things.
The Devil will often use the truth, whether for a greater lie or for the sake of power, as it is said. But we are not talking about the Devil (and even if we were, in Jewish/Christian mythology, the Devil is merely an interlocutor and questioner of God, not a psychopath or even evil), we are talking about people. Of course, if a person is overwhelmingly using their hammer to attack rather than to build, then that person probably should not be trusted. But ignoring and invalidating everything such a person would say is akin to eliminating hammers in your life, rather than unwieldy carpenters.
Having been the receiver of a lot of criticism based upon some truth, it is hard to hear the parts that are true and to disregard the parts which are interpretation, attempts to hurt and control, and the parts which are not true. Being human, I have flaws and have made mistakes in my life. But I will not ignore or dismiss the words of critics and ideas whole-cloth, because to do so opens me up to the possibility of conflating the message with the messenger. Even an abusive person, in using abusive words and actions, may have some insight worth paying attention to (even if they don’t follow it themselves).
I don’t want anyone to be coerced, controlled, or abused, but I also don’t want people to shrink into their shells and accept only words from people who are willing to coddle them and not challenge their comfort zone. That is not love, that is how growth stagnates. There is a very difficult rope to walk on between self-absorbed obliviousness and accepting victimhood. One of the questiona I keep asking myself recently is whether one’s own obliviousness, self-absorption, and arrogance (sometimes framed as confidence or strength of will) is any better, in the long run, to being subject to the coercion and abuse from others. Either way, you are letting a limited perspective control you.
Trusting my own judgment and instincts is only in tension with, and not in contradiction to, hearing the criticisms of friends, acquaintance, or even foes. This is because even if I cannot trust a person’s intentions or motivations, sometimes I must trust their ability to see my blind spots when I can’t.
Therefore, I pay attention to criticisms, even from those I consider to be not trustworthy. I do not seek to internalize the ideas of abusive people, but to ignore their perspective seems equally problematic. The error in abusive control comes in the abuse, not necessarily the content. If abusive people could learn to find loving ways to show us what we cannot see, then nobody would need to shy away from their knowledge.
And this is as true of me as it is of anyone. My struggle is to find ways to share my perspective in ways that are not hurtful, and to understand the knowledge that even abusive people might have to teach me. I trust my judgment, but my judgment is limited. Those who can see some things that I can see, and some of those people are truly assholes, must complement what I can already see, or I risk the blindness and myopia that follows fear and mistrust.
The last three nights I spent no time unable to sleep due to immense anxieties, self-doubts, or anger. For context, nearly every night over the last few months have been full of anxiety, anger, and pain keeping me up way too late, and this my not getting enough sleep. I know that this does not mean I will never have insomnia again. I know that this does not mean that I am forever out of the woods of mental health concerns. What I also know, however, is that I have dealt with the majority of the trauma that has plagued the last several months of my life, and I am finally ready to move on.
Yes, I will still have some processing to do about what to learn and how to grow, moving forward. Yes I will still have to deal with the presence of our former family as part of our local poly network, which will cause continued tension for us. But rather than drowning in the effects of those things, they will become small obstacles now, and I can try and create a newer, better, sense of self. I can re-build and re-define what this blog is and what I have to say with all of my experience as am atheist, polyamorous skeptic.
I have seen a lot, done a lot, understood a lot, and been completely vexed and overwhelmed by a lot more. What I have been through has made me stronger, wiser, and better able to see myself and the world around me. One consequence of this is I will be writing things which will contradict some older posts which exist here.
But this is not a contradiction in any personal sense. Anyone who would potentially quote something I wrote 2 years ago, compare it to what I would say now or in a month to demonstrate that I’m inconsistent, confused, or perhaps just a flip-flopper will fail to understand what growth and change means on a personal level. The person I was 2 years ago is, in many ways, not the person I am now or who I want to be. I was very angry 2 years ago, about things I didn’t even understand at that time.
Take, for example, the tag line of this blog: “criticism is not uncivil.” The idea behind this, originally, was that the truth is primary to any other concern. The idea was that if a disagreement about some fact, interpretation, etc poked its head up, rationally constructed criticism was not an inappropriate response. If you believe that a god exists, my criticism of this idea did not have to consider your emotional association to this idea, because there is a distinction between attacking an idea and attacking a person (is what I argued). And no, emotional attachments do not change the truth of a thing, but they should change how we have the conversation.
Now, if we were unemotional robots we wouldn’t have to worry about such things. The problem is that our very rational thinking itself is at least partially dependent upon not only emotion, but cognitive biases and self-justification. Our opinions, even if they happen to be opinions which would stand up to careful and empathetic scrutiny, exist in a soup of feelings, associations, rationalization, and will often have room for improvement.
So, what of that tagline? I am not sure yet. I don’t know if I want to keep it or change it. I could still keep it, and have it mean more that criticism, at least when done with consideration of all our human facets, is not uncivil. I still believe that criticism is essential for our personal and cultural growth, I just don’t accept that our criticism has to be unconcerned with our emotional realities.
Empathetic criticism is not uncivil?
Nah, I don’t like that.
In any case, the blog will indeed go on. The podcast may also continue (we did some recordings, but much of it was either lost or was not really good enough to release), but we’ll see when and how often that happens.
If you have any suggestions, thoughts, etc, please share them.
Sorry, I’m apparently working on a TV series here. I cannot confirm or deny whether it will air on Fox News.
In part 2, we addressed Ayn Rand’s argument that reason is important as a means to realizing our capability for pleasure, life, and giving to charity. OK, maybe not that last one.
Today, we continue with Rand’s essay, picking up with the theme that human life is the standard of value.
The Objectivist ethics holds man’s life as the standard of value—and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man.
In this case, the repetitive nature of this essay is helpful is useful to us, because it acts like a scene from the previous episode, in case you missed it. Rand either assumes that her readers have the attention span of a goldfish, or she just never edited her essays very well.
This repetitiveness, along with her stark dichotomies, straw men, and logical fallacies are trademarks of her writing. It makes good speeches for people prone to agree with her, and I can imagine many Objectivists feeling the emotional rhythm of the repetitive nature of these essays, coming at them in waves of freedom, individual virtue, and life, but this is nothing more than affective rhetoric. It’s no different from a good sermon or political speech, but it’s not good philosophy.
The rest of the essay is better imagined as a stump speech at a political rally, or perhaps a sermon at a revival. A godless, selfish, pleasure-seeking revival.
Rand has laid out the groundwork of her ideas and has tantalized us enough that it’s time to get to the flesh of the ideas. As the following commences, you might imagine the crowd becoming more animated, and perhaps hands pound lecterns with each emphasized word.
The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics—the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life—are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride.
Aren’t those things nice? I mean, sure they are! I like when I’m reasonable, I like when I have a purpose, and self-esteem is s good thing for all of us to have. The ability to be rational, production, and proud of my achievements are all good things. So, what’s my problem? Why and I not excited about this Ethic which promises me all of this? How could a rational person disagree?
Here’s the rhythmic, pulsating, cheer-inducing climax (although the end would be cut out in today’s political atmosphere);
It means one’s acceptance of the responsibility of forming one’s own judgments and of living by the work of one’s own mind (which is the virtue of Independence). It means that one must never sacrifice one’s convictions to the opinions or wishes of others (which is the virtue of Integrity)—that one must never attempt to fake reality in any manner (which is the virtue of Honesty)—that one must never seek or grant the unearned and undeserved, neither in matter nor in spirit (which is the virtue of Justice). It means that one must never desire effects without causes, and that one must never enact a cause without assuming full responsibility for its effects—that one must never act like a zombie, i.e., without knowing one’s own purposes and motives—that one must never make any decisions, form any convictions or seek any values out of context, i.e., apart from or against the total, integrated sum of one’s knowledge—and, above all, that one must never seek to get away with contradictions. It means the rejection of any form of mysticism, i.e., any claim to some nonsensory, nonrational, nondefinable, supernatural source of knowledge. It means a commitment to reason, not in sporadic fits or on selected issues or in special emergencies, but as a permanent way of life.
This is the kind of speech that would, for the most part, fit into an atheist convention. The values enumerated here are good ones, generally, and I agree with most of it. Where I start to differ is here:
It means that one must never sacrifice one’s convictions to the opinions or wishes of others (which is the virtue of Integrity)
I have a different use of ‘integrity,’ one which permits me to not hold onto my convictions so tightly. While I will not change my mind merely because others wish it, I would consider the wishes and opinions of others in the potential interest of changing my convictions if the evidence or perspectives warranted such a change. The level of stubbornness here is a little worrying, especially from a skeptical point of view (and no, I would not call Ayn Rand a skeptic). This rigidity of conviction is quasi-religious, yes, but it is also consistent with modern Right Wing politics where loyalty, conviction, and not hesitating or changing one’s mind are often considered virtues. I don’t think such things are necessarily virtuous.
Perhaps this level of conviction is related to “pride.”
The virtue of Pride can best be described by the term: “moral ambitiousness.” It means that one must earn the right to hold oneself as one’s own highest value by achieving one’s own moral perfection….by never placing any concern, wish, fear or mood of the moment above the reality of one’s own self-esteem. And, above all, it means one’s rejection of the role of a sacrificial animal, the rejection of any doctrine that preaches self-immolation as a moral virtue or duty.
Because nothing is more important than you. Your truth, your life, and your feeling of self-worth trumps everything. You (not humanity in general, just you) are the standard by which you decide which is right. And if anything out there conflicts with that self-esteem or value, then that thing brings with it death. In some ways, this is not all that different from the concept of “spiritual death” within some interpretations of Christianity; Any form of altruism is a kind of “sin” which separates you from true, selfish, morality.
I know this type of thought well. When I’m defensive, scared, and feeling insecure about myself. I paint myself into a corner with self-interest. And I can feel the rationalization churning away as I do this, because what’s happening when I feel this way is that I’m trying to hold back the flood-gates of things that contradict my own happiness, pleasure, and dissonance with the view of myself as a virtuous and good person.
What bothers me most is that while I get this, I know many other people do not get this, and many of them genuinely think that they are not insecure, defensive, or delusional about themselves. They just seem themselves as successful and awesome. You know, attributes consistent with narcissism.
I, therefore, think that I have the same gut feeling as Ayn Rand is describing here in her Ethic, and I recognize it for what it is; a self-centered and inconsiderate impulse–a reaction–against the threat of the Other. It is a reaction against being potentially wrong, of being uncertain, of having to admit that maybe other considerations besides my own might be worth caring about. It’s tempting, sometimes, to just go with what’s comfortable and easy; to allow my selfish impulses to rule my decisions, actions, and subsequent worldview created by trying to rein those actions into a coherent worldview of myself as virtuous and awesome.
Knowing and understanding other people is hard, and knowing what we want and what brings us pleasure is easier by comparison. The idea here seems to be that if we can see ourselves as virtuous, reasonable, and productive people then we can take pride in that. It’s not our job, says this Ethic, to account for the reasonableness, production, or pride of others. That’s their job. Anyone else who is not succeeding is doing so because they aren’t being reasonable or productive, and so their struggles are their own doing.
Happiness is the successful state of life, suffering is the warning signal of failure, of death.
That is simply not true. This is a wonderful example of the just-world fallacy at work. The world does not, whether by gods, fate, or karma, dish out happiness to the just or not suffering to the unjust. This delusional belief, which is similar to the ideas behind The Secret and similar worldviews, must be confronted and slapped down as the bullshit it is. And yet it is all too common a belief that if you work hard and are ethical (no matter the ethic), you will be rewarded. It’s quite possible you won’t be. It’s also possible that you will be very happy while making many people around you miserable. It happens all the time, and it blinds the happy person from the effects of their behavior. And if said person is predisposed to selfishness and egoism, they are even less-likely to realize it.
All too common.
More John Galt:
“Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction. … Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions.”
Pure delusion. But at least Rand is aware enough to make the following distinction:
If you achieve that which is the good by a rational standard of value, it will necessarily make you happy; but that which makes you happy, by some undefined emotional standard, is not necessarily the good. To take “whatever makes one happy” as a guide to action means: to be guided by nothing but one’s emotional whims.
The distinction is important, and I’m glad she made it here, otherwise she leaves herself open to the “Nietzschean egoism” she despises. She’s not stupid; she’s just myopic, oblivious, and obtuse.
Further, she is no mere hedonist;
This is the fallacy inherent in hedonism—in any variant of ethical hedonism, personal or social, individual or collective. “Happiness” can properly be the purpose of ethics, but not the standard.
I’m also glad she makes this distinction as well, as it is also important. Happiness, Rand argues, is great as a result but it is not the standard. The standard is, of course, is life itself (according to Objectivism, anyway). A happy life is just the reward for living with reason, productivity, and pride. All bullshit, of course, but at least it’s somewhat internally coherent bullshit.
Perhaps the following is a more clear illustration of the relationship between sacrifice, conflict, and the difference between egoism and altruism. This quote comes directly after addressing utilitarianism, wherein (according to Rand) the centrality of desire leads to situations where “men have no choice but to hate, fear and fight one another, because their desires and their interests will necessarily clash.” Desire, says Rand, cannot be the ethical standard.
And if the frustration of any desire constitutes a sacrifice, then a man who owns an automobile and is robbed of it, is being sacrificed, but so is the man who wants or “aspires to” an automobile which the owner refuses to give him—and these two “sacrifices” have equal ethical status. If so, then man’s only choice is to rob or be robbed, to destroy or be destroyed, to sacrifice others to any desire of his own or to sacrifice himself to any desire of others; then man’s only ethical alternative is to be a sadist or a masochist.
The moral cannibalism of all hedonist and altruist doctrines lies in the premise that the happiness of one man necessitates the injury of another
OK, that’s interesting. The idea seems to be that built into the very fabric of altruistic ethical philosophy implies that all desires, whether of the owner or the robber, are indistinguishable, and so equally valid. As a result, Rand seems to argue, we are all in perpetual conflict and that only by inciting sacrifice can we avoid perpetuating this conflict.
If you believed in a Hobbesian universe where we were all brutes who will try to rob, cheat, and lie to each other for our own benefit (a quite cynical view), enforced altruism might seem a way to get society to work. But what if that was not the motivation for altruism? What if the reason we ask for consideration, compromise, etc are not because we assume humanity is in a perpetual state of conflict?
It’s very possible that a sense of empathy, altruism (in the sense of the willingness and ability to sacrifice some of our desires, not Rand’s caricature), and care can be mapped onto a reasonable and logical moral framework without appealing to this view that leads to either sadism or masochism. If that were true, then self-sacrifice would not be causally related to conflict, and so we would not have to demonize altruism. Then, if (like Rand) we were to believe that human interactions are not inherently conflict-based, the solution does not have to be a fundamentally selfish set of values and virtues, whether Objectivist or otherwise. The solution could also be altruism or some compromise between selfish and selfless values (as most ethical philosophy does).
Choosing selfishness, whether as Rand does via reason, purpose, and self-esteem or otherwise, would then be as valid as any oither attempt to formalize ethics, rather than being objective or the true foundation of ethics, as Rand claims.
If our being reasonable, productive, and proud lead to us being happy (because we deserve it), then why she even worried about whether we are altruistic? Or, is it that her Ethic rids the world of this conflict and the injury. Or perhaps it just ignores it by eliminating selfless acts? If conflict is not inherent to human interaction, then being altruistic is not necessarily self-immolating, and will not lead to any kind of death. It might be unnecessary, but that’s another question than it being evil. I’m having trouble making sense of all that. So much for internal coherence, I suppose.
In any case, let’s see how Rand deals with some of the implications of being selfish on other people.
[W]hen one speaks of man’s right to exist for his own sake, for his own rational self-interest, most people assume automatically that this means his right to sacrifice others. Such an assumption is a confession of their own belief that to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man’s self-interest.
This is obviously a preemption of concerns about Rand’s Ethics implying that since we shouldn’t sacrifice ourselves, it means we simply sacrifice others. It seems to imply that by doing neither type of sacrifice (of ourselves or others), we are left with neutral parties free to interact without a sense of sacrifice or conflict between them. Nobody has to sacrifice anything! Sounds great.
But what if the very nature of refusing to give an inch of your interests (or convictions) was inherently sacrificial of not only the interests of others, but ultimately our own interests? Not because the others are moochers or trying to steal from us, but because the very nature of human interaction or communication is already inefficient and requires some level of effort (on both parts) in order to succeed. The very nature of communication, therefore, would require self-sacrifice.
Let me try to sketch this out.
Communication is inherently difficult, but even more so the more different we are. If I am to interact with other people, especially if those people are significantly different from me (whether due to language barriers, psychological differences, temperaments, etc), then that interaction inherently requires some level of work on my part to effectively communicate my proposals, ideas, etc. So, is this work in my interest? Not always.
When misunderstandings or conflicts do occur (and they will, even among Objectivists), the unwillingness to give up any level of self-interest for the sake of another will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to communicate the specifics of a neutral and mutually beneficial proposal, let alone where there actually is a conflict of interests.
This unwillingness blocks the possibility of understanding points of view not immediately in the Objectivist’s interest, or even ones that might be in their interest but are unknown to them. But because an Objectivist would be unwilling to extend any “altruistic” effort to understand the interests of other people, they would never learn about the ideas connected to those alien interests. What’s worse is that they might not even see this as a loss. Nothing in The Objectivist Ethics would imply otherwise.
If sacrifice for the sake of others is actually evil, then perhaps understanding others might require being evil in some cases. My taking the time to try to empathize, listen, and hopefully understand the interests of others is a sacrifice on my part. It’s a sacrifice of my time, patience, and cognitive effort to communicate with people who think differently than I. And if I see this effort as a sacrifice, then Rand might say that putting forth that effort would be bowing to altruistic demands, and therefore not being virtuous. And the result of this is that I cut myself off from not only potential neutral trade partners, but sets of ideas which are significantly different from my own, which will end up isolating myself from people with diverse perspectives, opinions, and worldviews. Just like with Galt’s Gulch, Objectivism seems to want to isolate itself from the world, effectively impoverishing its access to ideas, people, and experiences which they might learn from if they were not so self-absorbed and against any sort of self-sacrifice.
Getting back to Rand’s argument, Rand is asserting that the non-selfish ethical systems (whether utilitarian, Kantian, or full-blown altruism) view the world as full of people ready to take advantage of others and to ask us to sacrifice ourselves as a reaction to that inherent conflict. Rand does not assume this conflict is necessarily the case but neither do I, who she would have called an altruist, think that this is the case (no, I’m not even that cynical).
Let’s continue with the essay.
The idea that man’s self-interest can be served only by a non-sacrificial relationship with others has never occurred to those humanitarian apostles of unselfishness, who proclaim their desire to achieve the brotherhood of men.
Perhaps it has not occurred to some, but it has occurred to me, at least. Ayn Rand has set herself up as a sort-of prophet for true ethics, but what she really is doing is demonstrating her ignorance and misunderstanding of ethical philosophy in such spectacular fashion that all I can to is stare, slack-jawed. And yet this philosophy is revered by so many people!
The great speech of the essay has climaxed, and we head towards resolution. At this point, we’re past the part of the great speech where the music swells and the lights flicker, and we reach the part where the crowd is hushed and the speaker drops into a lower register, almost whispering so the everyone needs to strain to hear them. It’s now time for Objectivist pillow-talk.
The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the “aspirations,” the feelings, the whims….
The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.
Nobody expects, accepts, or offers any compromise. This neutrality is a sort of marketplace of self-interested people who will trade their ideas and products in order to create a non-competitive world, or so Rand thinks. Not competition. Not brutish, emotional, covetous desire.
However, when this Objectivism is actually put into practice in life with other people around, it does in fact create a kind of conflict. The conflict is there, it’s just that this philosophy encourages people to re-define any sign of this conflict as an attempt of moochers and robbers to steal from them in some way, rather than some actual injustice.
Any request or expectation of consideration looks like a demand for the Objectivist to sacrifice their convictions; to give into altruistic morality. Any request of empathy is a demand for the Objectivist or egoist to sacrifice themselves in some way; a demand to give up what they consider to be virtues. Why should they give up anything, material or conceptual, for your sake? You should do that yourself (they think as they step on your toes, dominate a conversation, or otherwise impose themselves onto the world around them). The logical conclusion of this view of self-sacrifice makes any request of empathy or consideration look like a kind of demand or theft.
In order to operate effectively in the world, however, consideration, empathy, and some level of self-sacrifice is necessary; not merely ethically, but practically as well. Until we are able to transcend the realm of individual interests and dive into intersubjective concerns (where ethics lives), we can’t even consider what I want from, to do, etc other people. In other words, it’s not even possible to have interests related to others until I have some ethically relevant relationship with another person. I can only do this by sacrificing my immediate interests for the sake of external reality.
But Objectivist Ethics never leaves the realm of individual interests, because it considers doing so “evil”. Now, actual Objectivists might employ some level of empathy and consideration in their lives, but this would accidental or incidental, rather than inherent to the Ethic. That is, if the Objectivist doesn’t have an inclination towards empathy or consideration already, Objectivism does not encourage this empathy (and actually discourages it), so the Objectivist can feel fine not employing such tools, isolating themselves from people, ideas, and whole sections of cultures.
Objectivism gives us no reason to employ empathy, and even uses reason to imply that being asked to do so is a form of theft. But without empathy of some kind, communication and understanding are not possible, leaving the non-empathetic Objectivist as indistinguishable from the “Nietzschean Egoist,” who merely does whatever they want. If Ayn Rand ever employed any kind of empathy, she was only doing so while being a bad Objectivist.
Rand’s claims that her Ethic does not lead to the sacrifice of others is not reasonable given that the unwillingness to empathize does not, in fact, create a neutral relationship. The difficulty of communication, understanding, etc create an imbalance; not one of tension between owner and potential robber, but simply of comprehension. Thus, it hurts us all. This is the absurdity of calling any self-sacrifice as evil; avoiding self-sacrifice hurts us all in the long run.
Only a brute or an altruist would claim that the appreciation of another person’s virtues is an act of selflessness.
a trader is a man who does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues, and who does not grant his love to the weaknesses or the flaws of others, only to their virtues.
In other words, we don’t love someone despite their flaws. We love them when they don’t have any, or at least we love them insofar as their virtues overshadow their flaws. That may sound good to you, but I would caution you against falling into a trap of privilege here; many of us struggle with aspects of ourselves that make our virtue harder to act on.
I’m not convinced that reason, productivity, and pride are sufficient to create a person of virtue. Is there no room for depression and its side-effects in virtue, where one might struggle with pride? What about economic factors that hold many people back from production? Are they not allowed to be loved or considered virtuous? What about a person whose reason is handicapped, at times or chronically,by either emotional disorders or simple cognitive inability? Do they get no love?
The worry here is that a person who wants to adopt this view will either be the type of person who is blind to their own faults (narcissists, for example) or who exist in such a bubble of privilege that they are deluded into thinking that they actually earned their success and happiness without the sacrifice of others around them. This view, therefore, is in tension with social justice insofar as economic and neuro-typical privilege (at least) is concerned. It seeks to pump up the already privileged, stigmatize the non-privileged, and to rationalize it all as “reasonable.”
But the line between reason and whim, as I discussed previously, is but a neuron or two away and all too often we are incapable of distinguishing them, especially when privilege takes its toll on us. I do not believe that Ayn Rand, or her followers, are any more reasonable than utilitarians, Kantians, or even those who follow the ethics of care (for example). I think they think they’re more reasonable, but we have Dunning-Kruger for that. But, of course, knowing you are subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect requires a certain level of self-awareness, attention, and care towards others. People prone to follow Ayn Rand have little of those qualities, in my experience.
And yet, they speak of love, human society, and the trade of knowledge and potential. However, Rand speaks of these things as things to be earned solely, and those “moochers” and other parasites cannot live in a rational, loving, cooperating society. It all sounds great, especially to Objectivist ears, but it’s an ideology which is startlingly ignorant of the nature of knowledge, intelligence, and the complexities of power and privilege.
But, what of government?
The only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence—to protect his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to his own property and to the pursuit of his own happiness. Without property rights, no other rights are possible.
And while Rand does not deal with the politics of Objectivism here (the answer is Capitalism; “full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism”), I’m glad she’s for the separation of church and state, at least.
In a sort of summation, she offers this:
I have presented the barest essentials of my system, but they are sufficient to indicate in what manner the Objectivist ethics is the morality of life—as against the three major schools of ethical theory, the mystic, the social, the subjective, which have brought the world to its present state and which represent the morality of death.
And then, following some more analysis of each school of ethical theory, she says that
It is not men’s immorality that is responsible for the collapse now threatening to destroy the civilized world, but the kind of moralities men have been asked to practice.
And then she ends by quoting John Galt (AKA herself) once more.
“You have been using fear as your weapon and have been bringing death to man as his punishment for rejecting your morality. We offer him life as his reward for accepting ours.”
However, the life that is offered is one infested with myopia, privilege, and an impoverishment of understanding of anything not immediately self-interested. This is a philosophy not built upon reason, but of rationalized selfish whims.
Smart people are really good at rationalizing their whims and making themselves think they are being reasonable. Ayn Rand was a smart woman who found a way to not only do so for herself, but created a worldview that still resonates with millions of people. If you look for them, you will find real places called Galt’s Gulch, and the influence of some of Rand’s ideas are still quite popular in political spheres, specifically for Rand Paul and many others within the Tea Party.
This essay demonstrates a sophomoric ethical philosophy, hardly worth serious attention except for its continuing influence. But there is more book to go (18 chapters, in fact), so we still have a way to go. Future posts will be shorter, as I will try not to address the same points.
In recent weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the question of the relativity of values. What do we value? Why do we value those things rather than other things? Might we be more content, happy, or more mature if we were to value other things? Can we change what we value? What the hell are “values”?
Today, I want to sketch out a rough analogy which may pave the road for future posts (or not, if the analogy breaks down or if it just ends up being a stupid idea).
In order for our bodies to function, we need to eat food. But the kind of food we eat, how much of it we eat, and how often we eat it will have an effect on the efficiency of that functioning, the body such a diet will maintain, and will effect our general mood and ability to accomplish various tasks.
In order for our brain to function as a contributor to our personality as part of a social landscape, it needs information. The kind of information it receives (especially early in its development) and how (and how often) we exercise it will influence what kind of mind we have. It will effect how we react to new or old information, what we believe about the world, and what we value.
In terms of our diet and our health, what we want to eat (both what we merely desire and what we think we should eat) is our set of tastes.
In terms of our worldview and moral inclinations, what we think and feel (both what we are inclined to and what we think we should believe and think right) is our set of values.
Desires and Wants
I want to make clear the distinction between what we unwillfully desire and what we want. If I see a piece of chocolate (especially dark chocolate), I desire it. My mind is inclined towards eating it, and it is by act of will (free or not) that I either eat it or I do not. My set of beliefs, values, etc will be responsible for that decision.
In terms of values, there is also a difference between my unconscious, automatic reaction to information and my conscious deliberation about information with emotional content. It is unconscious and automatic that I feel annoyance, even disgust, when seeing an obvious injustice perpetrated by someone against others (an unequal set of behaviors based upon a logical contradiction, for example; a violation of Kant’s categorical imperative as one rationalized example). But there is a difference between that feeling of annoyance or disgust and my subsequent deliberation about that behavior. I, for example, have a visceral feeling of annoyance, sometimes leaning on anger, at seeing some level of clutter (especially if ignored for some time). But rather than start Hulk-smashing (which just creates more clutter) I take a deep breath and remind myself that this anger is not rational; that I can either clean it, ask the person responsible to be aware of this emotional response I have and request they clean it, or I can distract myself with another task or activity (and hope it will be remedied in the mean time).
That is, what I desire to do when seeing clutter is to express my anger at the person responsible (a symptom of my personality disorder), but what I want to do is motivate my behavior towards healthier solutions, with the long term goal of correcting the automatic reaction to doing those more pragmatic solutions. I do not merely bow to my destructive desires, but try and re-orient my emotional reactions to something healthier, and over time it works with diligent effort. It has become essential and necessary for me to do this every day, and sometimes it’s easier than other times.
Similarly, what I desire is to eat salty snacks, chocolate/ peanut butter, and low fat wheat thins ( much better than the regular ones, IMO) while drinking a couple of delicious beers. I desire sweet, salty, (low) fatty foods all the time, but what I actually eat is much more healthy and I feel better because my wants govern my desires. They don’t repress or stifle them, but I feel that mitigating the effect of my desires is wise.
There are things that we desire and want. There are also social structures around us, with many competing (and sometimes harmonizing) ideas about how we should behave. Some of those ideas tell us to repress or even eliminate certain desires, because those desires are wrong.
But I think that we need to accept our desires as a given, and decide how we want to act while 1) not pretending those desires don’t exist 2) trying to find a way to express these desires in ways which do not non-consensually harm others and 3) not allowing those desires to consume our life such that we ignore what else we care about. These guidelines can be applied to conservative religious repression of homosexuality, social stigmatization of our innate sluttiness, or even the use of drugs (including alcohol). If you are gay, bisexual, or asexual, then you should find the ways you want to express those sexual inclinations. If you are slut, then you should be a slut. If you like a drug, then if you can do it without it being destructive to the world around you, then do it.
In short, we need to start deciding how to behave, what to believe, and what to value by being authentic. We cannot ignore the truth, even if we don’t like the truth. Because in many cases, the part of us that doesn’t like the truth is a part of us that is either broken or was imposed by an exterior idea (such as conservative moral views). We should care about what is true about our desires, and form our wants based upon those truths.
In Case Your Values are Wrong
If you find yourself living in such a way where you have desires which are unrealized, then you need to ask yourself why they are unrealized. If you go to church regularly and find yourself plagued by skeptical questions in response to what a religious authority says, then you might need to seek out alternative views. If you are in a monoamorous relationship but find yourself attracted to others, and even thinking about acting on those desires, then you might need to reconsider how you think about sex and relationships and consider some sort of nonmonogamy. If you can’t just have a couple of drinks, are getting high every day, or even if you never tried getting high but are curious about it but have always been afraid, then you might want to reconsider your association with those things.
There are diets which are good for us, others which are not. There are values which are good or us, and those which are not. How do you know that your values, your emotional relationship to the world, are the best set of values for your inclinations? And even if they are, have you considered if they are damaging to people around you? (That is, are they moral values, rather than Randian selfish values?). Do you even care if your values affect other people in ways they don’t want? Also, if they do affect others in ways they don’t want, are their current values, with which yours currently conflict, wrong? If their values are wrong, how can you demonstrate this to them in a way that will not result in them being defensive, yelling at you, or punching you?
What’s more important; standing for the right values knowing that they might actually be ultimately wrong, even if they are better relative to other value sets) or respecting all potential values (even the obviously wrong ones)? Assuredness or accommodation? (some might call it “temerity or tolerance?”, but that’s simply the other side of the coin).
I don’t have an answer to that question which everyone will accept, or even one that convinces myself all the time. My inclinations, my desires, often tell me to stand convicted to what I value, because those values are best. But what I want is to actually have the best values, which requires a certain level of uncertainty and skepticism. I must perpetually challenge my values the way I challenge my beliefs, and thus my certainty about my values is proportional to the amount of beating those values take from challenges both external and internal. An unchallenged value is not worth much, yet an unchallenged value is worth everything to its owner.
That is, we should be skeptical not only about facts, but also values. I, along with people such as Hilary Putnam and (seemingly) Sam Harris, think that the qualitative distinction between facts and values is dubious. Therefore, I also think that the common moral distinction made in our culture between criticizing a person’s facts and criticizing their values is dubious. I do think that criticizing a person’s values is a harder task to do well, especially if we care about their likely defensive reactions, but it is not an invalid criticism. There is no logical contradiction to pointing out that values can be wrong, at least in the sense of not matching up with reality and what might provide optimal well-being, emotional maturity, and authenticity. People are too often attached to their values (as well as their facts), and this should not be accommodated.
In a similar way that what we want to eat (in terms of our health) is something that is subject to criticism, what we value (in terms of being a fully realized and authentic person) is subject to potential criticism. If you tell me that I cannot tell you what to value, I will nod in agreement with the fact that I cannot force values on you, but that I can tell you that your values may be wrong.
New atheists. That is what we are called by some. I find the label somewhat misguided, but I understand why it is applied.
Many people are not used to hearing about atheism, challenges to faith, etc. It is new to them. They may know atheists, and likely do not know that those people are atheists, but they may know that they don’t attend a church or participate in any faith. Many people, atheists included (but don’t call them that!) prefer a reverential approach to their believing neighbors. They don’t bring it up because they don’t really care or they find it distasteful.
And so when they see us, the “new atheists,”TM they view our criticism and challenges as overly aggressive in our tone and approach. They view these aggressive tactics as hurting our cause in society by pushing people away rather than trying to be their friends. I don’t see evidence for this harm. I see theists becoming defensive because they are not used to the criticism. I see their coddled status being taken away, and they don’t like it.
Why shouldn’t we be critical? Religion does cause harm. Faith, belief without or in spite of evidence to the contrary, is largely responsible for the anti-intellectual and anti-scientific fervor that exists in various cultures, particularly our own American culture.
But those faitheists and accomodationists will continue to claim that religion is good in many ways and that we are being too harsh in denouncing religion wholesale. I agree. I think that there are aspects of religion and religious culture that are good. Religion can be good; it helps people in need, supplies hope, and it provides a basis for teaching morality. Or at least one kind of morality or another.
Yes, religion can do these things, but I see no reason why only religion of faith can do these things. A religion of faith? Why add that qualifier, you may ask. Well, first of all not all religious people necessarily have faith, depending on your definition of faith. Further, not all people that have faith necessarily have a religion. Religion is…well, religion is complicated. I will not try to define this term here, but I want to address it in a tangential way.
The Religious Instinct
There are sets of emotions, behaviors, and dispositions that tend towards ‘religious’ behavior. It can include rituals, music, states of mind, etc. But this is an expression of a more general psychological disposition that we all, or at least the vast majority of us, share. It is expressed through music, poetry, the fine arts, and perhaps even philosophy. It is an expression of those experiences internal to each of us that feels like it is coming from somewhere…else.
It is sublime, beautiful, and it has its own subtle rules and constraints that we can apprehend in rarer states of mind. When one is enthralled in an ecstatic moment, there is a kind of flowing of emotion, meaning, and beauty that seems to transcend us. It doesn’t actually transcend us, but it gives the sensation of transcendence.
As a writer, I know this well. There are time when, in writing, I find myself almost transported and feel as if the words are coming through me, as if I were but a conduit for some ideas. I understand the concept of inspiration. I know why people think that God works through them because I feel that experience myself.
So, why am I an atheist then?
Well, because when I’m in that state of mind, I’m being creative. I’m using natural tools of my brain to create, understand, and communicate. I am not being methodical, careful, nor remotely scientific. That is, I am not concerned with what is true in these moments, even if at some of these moments I may get the delusional idea that there is more truth there than in cold, rational, analysis.
Beauty is truth, and truth beauty?
There is a sense where the moments of beauty and poetry that overcome me seem to reveal a kind of truth. It feels as if the universe has opened up to me and given me a slice of something that my rational mind was unable to find. And sometimes, upon further reflection, I find that it may have found a bit of truth before unseen. But that is the important part of that; upon further reflection.
Because how many times have ideas or thoughts from inspiration turned out to be duds? Most of the time, some if the time? Always? I suppose it depends. But it is upon sober, rational reflection that we will find whether or not the moment of inspiration has given us gold. The reason is that there is a difference in approach. The moments of beauty, sublimity, and transcendence are the result of our brain doing what it does, not as it can be trained to do.
And I’m glad that this part of our minds exist because it is from these ecstasies and sublimities that we create. Not discover, elucidate, or comprehend, but create.
The aspects of our minds that find revelation, communicate with the spirits, or attain a slice of heaven are the same parts that write novels, create sculpture, and write poetry. In this mode of thought there is a freedom of form, expression, and a lack of criticism. Yes, that’s it; a lack of criticism!
Not that we can’t look at two creations and judge one or the other more or less beautiful (or at least argue about why we think one is more beautiful), but that one looked on its own not criticized in relation to the world, generally. It is not pointed at and said that the thing does not appear to be like anything else that is real. A sculpture of a dragon is not looked at and scolded for not representing a real animal. A poet is not criticized for not representing a real conversation or speech. A theologian is not criticized for not representing the universe as it really is. That’s not the point, right?
Well, if you talk to Karen Armstrong, you may get such a response. But the fact is that theologians, most of them anyway, do claim that they are describing reality. They are not merely creating, they claim. They are talking about not only truth, but Truth.
But where do these truths come from? Revelation, communion with a deity, book (which ultimately go back to revelation or some claimed historical event), etc. They come from the mind, and many of them from ancient minds not trained in the meticulous rational skills which would be necessary to analyze these experiences.
When theologians tackle these issues, whether today or the ancient theologians that dealt with these religious beliefs, they only apply rational thinking to keep the stories internally consistent while forgetting that the person who first experienced the idea was as fallible as you or I in determining truth from these internal experiences of ecstacy and transcendence.
If we want to discover what is real, we need to be meticulous. We need to check assumptions, use empirical methods, and try to devise a way to prove our idea wrong. And so long as we cannot prove it wrong and the evidence supports the idea, then we provisionally hold our hypothesis as true. The longer it withstands scrutiny, the more it becomes a theory. Not just some guess or inspiration, but an idea that stands up against attempts to knock it down. In other words, we need to use the scientific method.
Does this sound like what poets do? How about novelists? How about theologians? ‘Well, of course not,’ they will say. ‘These things are not subject to empirical study.’ Really? Why not? ‘Well, it takes away from the beauty; science cannot explain beauty.’
Perhaps not. Or perhaps it can. That is not what is at issue. What is at issue is that our minds are capable of different kinds of thought. Some of our mental capabilities provide for us this ‘religious instinct’ that we are all familiar with to some extent. But this instinct is part of our creativity, and is only tangentially helpful in a pursuit of truth. Our creative powers may, occasionally, provide us with insights into a new way of thinking about a problem, but once we have the idea we must switch to using our learned critical skills on to test the idea. We cannot just dream and create answers to real world problems, we have to criticize them.
Our creative powers which provide us with the transcendent experiences, sublime emotions, and inspiring ideas are a great tool for the creative process, but not for attaining truth. If we want to know what is real, we need to be critical, meticulous. and scientific.
Religion claims to have truth; it claims it knows something about what is real. By being critical of those claims and the methods by which those claims are attained, atheists (‘new’ or not) are not being disrespectful. Anyone who claims to have the truth and who subsequently calls criticism of their methods or conclusions disrespectful is either insecure about their position or does not understand how to think critically.
In many cases, it is both.
So yes, the parts of our mind that religion uses; the creative, transcendent, and sublime aspects of us that supply us with beauty, love, and all of those wonderful things are great. So, if that is all that religion is, then there is not much of an argument. That is, if the vague and meaningless God of theologians like Karen Armstrong is all that religion provides–a thing that need not even exist to be important–then religion is simply a nice story with which I can have little quarrel.
But if religion also deals with what is true, at least in the same use of ‘true’ as we mean when we say something is real, then criticism is warranted. I may find many aspects of religious practices to be beautiful, but I don’t think they are true. And that is what is at issue. If those artistic expressions that come from creative people–mythology, morality stories, and the like–are not intended to be literally true, then they are just stories we can enjoy on their own merit. But this is not the case. Christianity, Islam, etc are believed to be actually true and real, not just stories.
Anything that is proposed as the truth in society of culture is open for criticism. To actually step forward and do so is the responsibility of a citizen who cares about the truth, reality, etc. To postulate a story about the universe as true and then remove it from the realm of critical analysis, or to not at least try to validate it oneself while having faith in it is not strength nor reverent behavior, but weakness.
Allowing ourselves to be swallowed up by stories birthed in the ecstatic moments of artistic creativity and then to claim it to be true is not clear thinking. We need to train ourselves to be better thinkers and to accept criticism or to get used to feeling disrespected.
Respect is not warranted when art is presented as truth. The truth, as the Vorlons say, points to itself. It does not need us to create it.
The longer we go in not challenging ourselves and others, the longer we will continue to live in a world that will crawling towards progress.
We are weak, insecure, fearful, and habitual people. I speak primarily of Americans, because that’s the culture I live in, but I think it is true everywhere to some extent. We are afraid of challenging the mythological assumptions of the world around us. Most believe that faith is good, monogamy is the default, and that success is more important than integrity. We believe these things because the structure of the culture that dominates the world is populated by people that were taught these things and perpetuate these things. Thus, in some perverted sense, they are practically true because they are tradition.
But what is the basis for these beliefs? How many times have I heard that to not believe in something, to simply believe that the world in blind processes without the faith in a god, some paradise, or at least some ultimate meaning, then life is not worth living. Fucking bullshit.
People believe such things because they have never challenged themselves to actually think about this seriously. People are emotionally attached to their beliefs, and so their is a kind of pain when some fact, idea, etc comes to mind that contradicts their worldview. More common is the cognitive dissonance that arises in people who accept contradictory ideas.
Then there are the insecure, lazy, and ignorant hypocrites of the world;
Sunday Christians (those that really are only god-fearing at church, and otherwise don’t give a rats ass except when they meet an atheist). You have never really challenged yourself to figure out what you might really believe if you looked at the claims of your religion. You rely on the support group of the others around you (many of which are using you for the same thing), and have probably never even read your holy book.
Monogamous couples who cheat. You know very well that you want more people in your life sexually, and most even still love their spouses. Yet when you are asked what is wrong with polyamory you say it’s wrong, unnatural, or “not for me.” When you say it’s not for you, you mean its not for your partner, or that you don’t have the guts to open yourself up to the jealousy and insecurity that come with thinking about sharing yourself and your loved ones. Yes, there are some people who just make poor choices and really aren’t into being poly, but I think that a lot more of you out there are just scared, insecure, and fearful of the concept of you not being enough for someone else.
The worst part is that we don’t talk about these things. Religion and politics. Ok, sex too, at least insofar as challenging the fantasy of the soul-mate or the “one for me” mythology; the things that we are not supposed to talk about. Bullshit. The only reason that is true is because when we do, we expose the insecurities and fears of those that refuse to challenge themselves. We tell ourselves that we do it out of respect, but respect for what; Insecurity and fear?
Stop allowing your fears, as well as the fears of those around you, from preventing these discussions. Challenging the worldviews of people we disagree with (hopefully after honestly considering your own position), is how we can help our culture grow out of this insecure and fear-ridden infancy.