Category Archives: Ethics

Soulsizing

If you are a person who invests your best time and effort into understanding what matters most to you, chances are you’ll end up understanding things differently from most people in your life.

But everyone has some kind of understanding of what matters most to them, even if they have not spent time explicitly interrogating it. And by virtue of the fact that these understandings attach to the most important things, the understandings are invested with great importance and might even be counted among the most important things.

This means there is not only a difference in understanding, but a morally-charged difference in understanding.

That moral charge often manifests as taboo against even hints of doubt, much less approaching in a questioning spirit, much less engaging in active interrogation.

So not only is there a morally-charged difference in morality, but also a morally-charged difference in whether we even ought to actively seek a deeper and possibly destructive understanding of understandings of precisely what we value most.

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The strangest thing about digging beneath prohibitions against digging into morally-charged understandings, it how much general understanding and how many quotidian beliefs get undermined in the process. These questions literally change everything, including, perhaps most of all, what is meant by the word “everything” when we say it, how much that word comprises.

Everythings come in many sizes.

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What is the basic unit of measurement of a soul? Everything.

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Our souls give each other’s souls space to live.

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The harder you work at understanding — whether you succeed or fail does not matter, but only how much you ultimately diverge from the norm — the less you can expect to be understood, because many cannot follow the thinking and many more refuse to. The difference between people who would if they could but really can’t, and people who could if they would but really won’t becomes starkly evident, and starkly significant.

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Existential FOMO

A lot of longing for freedom might be best explained as existential FOMO. It is a fear of committing to one concrete future self and missing out on all the other future selves who could have been.

I’m reminded of an insight from Nietzsche, where he says something to the effect of: don’t tell me what you want freedom from; tell me what you want freedom for.

The problem with the freedom that existential FOMO craves is that it excludes the positive freedom of being someone, not only because being someone requires sustained effort and discipline, but also because substantial relationships with other people depends on us being someone who can be counted on to be there when we are needed.

A person who seems to be one person one day and another person the next… a person who values very different things depending on context and mood… a person who daydreams of one life one day, and another life the next… a person who’s constantly revising their autobiography and recasting characters (making heroes into villains and villains into heroes to suit the trajectory of the plot, or reassigning stars to bit-parts and bit-parts to star roles to fit the theme of the story du jour)… such people can be friends only with people who care little enough about relationships to skim over the whimsical inconstancy. Such lite friends can be very chill and easy to hang with, and they’ll give you all the freedom you want to be whoever you want to be in the moment, but they are as likely to relieve existential FOMO as a double shot of bourbon is to relieve craving for alcohol. That hollowness and that irritability that says you need more, more, better, better will intensify.

It is difficult to find that one future self you want to be. It doesn’t irrupt into your life as a grand fully-formed epiphany and blueprint. Nor does it appear as a person standing across the room — whether it’s that person you’ve waited for your entire life, or just someone who looks like the next fascinating nut to crack. Nor is it being discovered — first someone, then everyone! — finally realizing who I really am. If you are discovered this way, chances are you’re a by-product of someone else’s delusional self-discovery.

Too much chasing of this kind of self-actualization makes you lose your taste for everything that can make you into someone. Eventually you run out of time, energy and hope.

Being someone worth being takes alertness, sustained attention and a good eye, ear and nose for quiet and subtle hints of love — seeds of meaning that can be nurtured, grown, disciplined and made the core of life worth full commitment.

Design Instrumentalism

The best name for my approach to philosophy might be Design Instrumentalism, a variant of John Dewey’s Instrumentalism. According to Wikipedia,

Instrumentalism is a pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey that thought is an instrument for solving practical problems, and that truth is not fixed but changes as problems change. Instrumentalism is the view that scientific theories are useful tools for predicting phenomena instead of true or approximately true descriptions.

Design Instrumentalism differs from Dewey’s Instrumentalism in that it focuses on ideas as instruments that ought to be designed intentionally employing design methods and to be evaluated by design standards, such as Liz Sanders‘s famous triad of Useful, Usable and Desirable:

  • How well does the philosophy help its subscribers act effectively in response to concrete situations and produce good outcomes?
  • How well does the philosophy define, relate and elucidate ideas to allow subscribers of the philosophy to articulate clearly an account of reality as they experience it?
  • How well does the philosophy inspire its subscribers to value existence in whole and sum?

Philosophies, too ought to be designed as person-reality interfaces, which are should not be viewed as collections beliefs, but rather the fundamental conceptions of reality that direct attention,  guide responses, shape beliefs and connect everything together into a comprehensive worldview and praxis.

Obviously, Design Instrumentalism has a lot of arguing to do to justify its legitimacy, but luckily most of this legwork has been done by Pragmatists and their various intercontinental offspring, and it all solid, persuasive and boring to rehash. I prefer to just skip to the bottom line, and rattle off some key articles of faith, which are basically the vital organs of Pragmatism.

This is a good start of a list of Pragmatic presuppositions. I’m guessing some are missing, and many more could arguably be included. Phenomenology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, Materiality Turn philosophies and, at least for me, Nietzschean ethics also figure heavily, but I’ll err toward underspecification to leave maximum room for variety.

One more thing about Design Instrumentalism: It is, like all ambitious philosophies, a meta-philosophy. It might be useful, usable and desirable for some thinkers, but it encourages the design of philosophies for those who do not find Design Instrumentalism itself valuable, and focused “single-use” philosophies for specialized purposes, such as finding frameworks that support the resolving of design problems.

Doing just this kind of reframing in the context of professional design strategy, in combination with my private philosophical work is exactly what drove me to this view of philosophy. For me, none of this is speculative theorizing, but in fact my best attempt to equip myself with the ability to explain myself, to function effectively in the situations I find myself in every day, and to infuses my work and my life with a sense of purpose. Something like an inarticulate Design Instrumentalism led me to articulate Design Instrumentalism.

Collaborative agon

It’s difficult, painful and uncanny to argue across fundamentally different worldviews. Not everyone can do it and even fewer will do it. It requires collaborative agon, and too much desire to avoid conflict or to make one’s own position prevail will destroy the conditions of success.

Recognizing a conflict that requires collaborative agon and conducting oneself accordingly is an essential dimension of reason, albeit an uncommon dimension, and entirely outside the limits of reasonable discourse for those who cannot imagine that all disagreements are not a matter of evidence and logic, nor is it a last resort to employ only after evidence and logic are exhausted.

Solid-gold inspiration

Anxiety is an unpleasant type of inspiration.

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Despising anxiety is not only a waste of inspiration, it is alienating.

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The Golden Rule is not gold-plate — it is solid gold all the way down, and nobody finds the bottom. But a morally serious person follows the gold down as far as it goes, and further.

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What does it mean to follow the Golden Rule deeper?

Starting at the surface: Do you want others to do do to you exactly what they want done to them? Would you like them to feed you only the food they want to eat themselves and make you listen to the music they would have played for them? Clearly this is not deep enough.

Further down: Would you like others to treat you justly, according to their own sense of justice, in disregard of what seems just, fair and good to you? Do you want them to privilege their own instincts and conceptions — their own conscience — which makes their justice seem as self-evident to them as yours is to you?

Do you want them to believe their anxious suspicions that you think and act in bad faith, and to do everything in their power to stop you and silence you if possible?

Clearly, we must mine deeper.

The more layers we dig beneath — and the more we undermine our own moral complacency by applying the Golden Rule as strictly to ourselves as we apply it to others — the more we discover not only changes in what we believe about morality, but we also change how we believe moral truths, and deeper still, why we care about morality.

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When we make others anxious with our ideas, they are full of reasons why they ought to take their anxiety literally, give their paranoid suspicions full reign, and obey its logical consequences and shut us down in whatever way is most efficient.

And if we are willing to apply the Golden Rule symmetrically — as the Golden Rule implies we must — we find we do the same thing to others, all the time, constantly. We can find myriad reasons to silence others, if only in our own head, if only temporarily, if only through saying “maybe later…” It takes tremendous discipline and pain tolerance to do otherwise.

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If we welcome anxiety as inspiration, interpreting what it says to us, letting it work on us, allowing it to be productive through us — everything changes.

Everything, literally.

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Anxiety is how real transcendence feels before our understanding renders it immanent.

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Anyone who wants religion to be an instrument for annihilating or banishing anxiety and having only peace — whether through outer-fight or through inner-flight — is looking for something other than religion.

Religion is for cultivating the fullest possible relationship with reality beyond our understanding. Religion is inherently anxious.

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Liberalism is far deeper than authoritarians will allow themselves to know.

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Maybe we need a Solid-Golden Rule: Apply the Golden Rule to yourself as you would have others apply it to themselves.

Two definitions of justice

For some, justice is primarily a matter of determining guilt and proper punishment. For others, justice is also a matter of determining innocence and proper protection.

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I remember back in the mid-2000s, when I was caught up in the general leftist panic about the underlying philosophy of the Neocons and decided to dig into the substance of their thought for myself. The panic turned out to be justified. The passage below comes from Irving Kristol’s Neo-Conservatism: An Autobiography of an Idea:

The main priority of a sensible criminal-justice system — its first priority — is to punish the guilty. It is not to ensure that no innocent person is ever convicted. That is a second priority — important but second. Over these past two decades, our unwise elites — in the law schools, in the courts, in our legislatures — have got these priorities reversed. (Page 362, “The New Populism: Not to Worry”)

That is a pretty weird way to frame justice, but it rings eerily familiar is some conversations I’ve had with Progressivists lately. If you wanna make an omelette, you’ve gotta break some eggs.

I am not yet persuaded

People – especially empathic people – can sometimes forget that they, too, have a right to be persuaded.

They unconsciously assume the burden of persuasion, and feel that if they have not persuaded others to their belief, they do not have the right to their own beliefs, or at least not to public belief. They think that until they can argue a belief, they are obligated to keep it to themselves and suppress or conceal their doubts.

I think this can be harmful.

I consider it a liberal’s right, if not a duty, to express non-persuasion or even dissent when it exists, even when there is no strong argument to back up the belief. This practice is important for a number of reasons. If nobody disagrees or doubts, it creates an appearance of unanimity, suggesting self-evident truth. It can cause people to doubt their own doubts and worry that their questions are stupid or misguided. If this fear becomes widespread and habitual, and people stop raising questions and everyone becomes unaccustomed to unquestioning acceptance, a culture of conformity can develop where group-think is the rule and questioning is taboo.

Registering doubt at least keeps questions open. It also encourages other individuals with doubts to speak up. It keeps a society accustomed to hearing individual judgments and individual thinking that goes against the grain.

To a liberal these are concerns of the highest rank.

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My conviction is that we can believe or not believe something even without strong arguments.

Of course, if we want people to agree with us, we’ll eventually have to produce some persuasive reasons. Until then it will be necessary to stand alone.

But we are allowed to stand alone. Some of us admire people for standing alone – as long as they also respect our right to be unpersuaded.

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Advice to myself:

If I find myself in the midst of a group with whom I disagree, I will raise my hand and state: “I am not persuaded by what you are saying.”

I will openly admit it if I do not yet have counter-arguments. I will tell everyone I’m still thinking about it.

I will not be silent, and I definitely won’t be silenced.

Progressivists

As Christian fundamentalists who wish to forcibly impose their views on a population are called Christianists, and as Islamic fundamentalists who wish to forcibly impose their views on a population are called Islamists, Progressive fundamentalists who wish to forcibly impose their views on a population should be called Progressivists.

And why shouldn’t they? They have had powerful conversion experiences that revealed the true Truth to them. Now they see the world in its totality with an undeniable intensity, clarity and coherence. They know, they know that they know, and they no longer have patience for those who have no desire to know. They cannot conceive of how they could possibly be wrong, nobody is able to show them to their satisfaction how they are wrong, and therefore they are right.

Some are “born again”, some are “enlightened”, some are “red-pilled”, some are “woke”, and all are naive realists who think they awoke from naive realism, and they are going to wake you up, too.

Classy progressives

Conversations among progressives can be confusing.

When politics is the topic, everything seems very leftist. They regard exclusivity, privilege, elitism, inequality, unfairness and consumerism as abhorrent and are quick to call it out when they see it.

But when the talk turns to less weighty topics, egalitarianism goes out the window. It becomes a competition to see is most urbane, who has vacationed in the most exotic places, who has the best taste in wine, literature, cinema and art, who knows the most about the newest, most fashionable restaurants, who has a degree from the most prestigious university, who has what status in what airline, hotel and credit card. Who has the highest status?

It all seems very self-contradictory — unless you realize that political beliefs and social ethics is just another of these status qualifications.

To establish that one belongs to the progressive elite class one must have the best taste in food and drink, must vacation in the best places, must have the best educational pedigree and one must believe the right things and practice the best political etiquette most strictly.

Seen in this light virtue signaling is just another dimension of a larger class signaling.

Assuming a progressive elitist class exists, would progressive elitists be aware of the advantages they derive from their dominant identity? Would they be able to overcome the a form of motivated reasoning that sees unjust privilege everywhere but in its own identity? Wouldn’t they feel deeply uncomfortable when confronted by others, and perhaps feel some fragility and rage at having their dominance challenged and at the impudent demand that they share power with those who are different from them? Could they be quiet and really listen for a change, instead of lecturing and dominating the discourse? Could they accept the hard truth that, even with their deductions, counter-balances and privilege-checking they have refused to check the one privilege that dwarfs all the others combined?

Could they apply their own principles to themselves? Or will they use their power to dismiss, discredit, disgrace and punish attempts to speak truth to a power identity so powerful that it demands to be treated not as an identity but as truth and justice itself?

Faith in faithfulness

Faith is the relationship we have with reality beyond what is present to our experience, the being that inspires our warmest love and coldest dread, the being upon which we depend for our very being, the being with the potential to shock us with its stark alienness or surprise us with inconceivable fullness. Life without faith is entirely pointless, and this is why reciprocation of faith — faithfulness — seems commanded by reality itself.

We should be faithful to the past and to the future, to what is behind what is nearest and concealed by distances, and to the people around me (human and nonhuman) I can learn from and teach and to the mysterious source of my own selfhood. In the stories we tell ourselves, we should adhere to the existence of these realities and not re-narrate them for the convenience of the moment, because only this gives our own selfhood persistence and coherence.

We maintain ourselves as ourselves both for ourselves and for those who love us, those who we love, those who we hope with be faithful to us. Covenant.

I believe this faith in faithfulness makes me religious. No?

The “yes, but, so” of pseudoliberalism

What is it about Rorty that makes him so satisfying to disagree with? Rorty’s mistakes and omissions make me like him even more. Maybe it is because his ultimate goals and tacit evaluations correspond to my own, and our disagreements are merely around facts and inferences.

Rorty was profoundly pluralistic, and you can feel it.

[I meant to just write about Rorty, but here the post takes a turn toward the theme of emergencies and liberalism, which appears to be my live problem right now.]

Rorty, as far as I know, never did that pseudoliberal move of piously nodding to the ideal of liberalism and then immediately finding reasons to betray it for the sake of saving it from those illiberal others.

Yes, there are illiberals. Yes, they attack liberalism from the inside when they attack it from the outside by forcing it to resort to illiberal measures to defend itself. But with pseudoliberals the eagerness to find necessities to resort to illiberal measures is palpable. Their faces brighten when they find the “yes, but… so…” that lets them have it both ways: appealing to liberal principles to support their own liberty, while finding themselves in the midst of an emergency that calls for privileging their own judgments over those who view things differently. “Yes, but people’s safety is at risk, so…” “Yes, but there is corruption (or conspiracy!) at the very root of the institutions we are supposed to trust, so…” “Yes, but the public is too deluded and stupid to judge for itself, so…” “Yes, but the USA’s form of liberal democracy was corrupted from the start, and the stain of sin remains, so…” “Yes, but we are being overrun by hordes of illegal immigrants, so…” etc., etc., etc.

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Saturday, I tried to explain to a conservative friend that if we arbitrarily decide an illegal immigration problem (that is actually on a trajectory of improvement) is such an emergency that it justifies use of extra-democratic emergency powers, he has no right to complain in 2022 when President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declares an emergency over poverty or institutional racism or worker’s rights.

Humility as insight

Objective reality as we all (to some degree) know it is a product of myriad overlapping subjective realities as each of us know it; and each of these subjective realities is in turn a product of metaphysical reality none of us knows in any normal sense of knowledge.

If we are insufficiently alert our objectively-tempered subjective truth seems for all the world to be an imperfectly but adequately known objective reality that faithfully represents metaphysical reality.

The hardest thing for a human is not mistaking oneself for God. Most of us fail at this task and succumb to apotheosis.

Humility is a hard-won insight. Self-humiliation is a grotesque counterfeit.

(I’m pretty sure I’ve written this post before.)

Public shaming as cruel and unusual punishment

Fron Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed:

The common assumption is that public punishments died out in the new great metropolises because they’d been judged useless. Everyone was too busy being industrious to bother to trail some transgressor through the city crowds like some volunteer scarlet letter. But according to the documents I found, that wasn’t it at all. They didn’t fizzle out because they were ineffective. They were stopped because they were far too brutal.

The movement against public shaming was already in full flow in March 1787 when Benjamin Rush, a United States founding father, wrote a paper calling for their outlawing— the stocks, the pillory, the whipping post, the lot.

“Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death… It would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment than death, did we not know that the human mind seldom arrives at truth up on any subject till it has first reached the extremity of error.”

—BENJAMIN RUSH, “AN ENQUIRY INTO THE EFFECTS OF PUBLIC PUNISHMENTS UPON CRIMINALS, AND UPON SOCIETY,” MARCH 9. 1787

In case you consider Rush too much of a bleeding-heart liberal, it’s worth pointing out that his proposition for alternatives to public shaming included taking the criminal into a private room—away from the public gaze—and administering “bodily pain.”

To ascertain the nature, degrees, and duration of the bodily pain will require some knowledge of the principles of sensation and of the sympathies which occur in the nervous system.

Public punishments were abolished within fifty years of Rush’s paper, with only Delaware weirdly holding out until 1952 (which is why the Delaware whipping critiques I excerpt were published in the 1870s).

The New York Times, baffled by Delaware’s obstinacy, tried to argue the state into change in an 1867 editorial.

“If it had previously existed in [the convicted person’s] bosom a spark of self-respect this exposure to public shame utterly extinguishes it. Without the hope that springs eternal in the human breast, without some desire to reform and become a good citizen, and the feeling that such a thing is possible, no criminal can ever return to honorable courses. The boy of eighteen who is whipped at New Castle [a Delaware whipping post] for larceny is in nine cases out of ten ruined. With his self-respect destroyed and the launt and sneer of public disgrace branded upon his forehead, he feels himself lost and abandoned by his fellows.”

—QUOTED IN ROBERT GRAHAM CALDWELL, Red Hannah: Delaware’s Whipping Post

If the practice of public shaming was abandoned for being a form of cruel and unusual punishment, isn’t it at least a little alarming that it is being used as an instrument of vigilante justice, without trial or oversight?

Less toxic ideology, more human-centered design

Yesterday, I opened a can of Johnny Letter on Fast Company, for running what I saw as an uninformed and blatantly bigoted opinion piece, “Design needs more feminism, less toxic masculinity”.

Rather than complain about the bigotry, though, I chose instead to focus on what I believe is the root cause of most lousy, unempathic design: the failure to research design problems before attempting to solve them. Far too often we reflexively impose our own perspectives and interpretations upon situations and assume we know what needs doing to improve the situation — neglecting the essential hard work of listening, observing and developing an understanding of people in their contexts.

This is a failure the author herself exemplifies in making reckless assumptions about the cause of the bad design she laments and her proposed solution to this problem. Here’s the letter I sent (with slight edits):

I am disappointed that Fast Company chose to run “Design needs more feminism, less toxic masculinity”. I’ve worked with many male and female designers, and have found that the difference between those who are able to empathize and design to the emotional and functional needs of other people has far more to do with willingness to investigate and to get over our own preconceived notions than anything else. In this piece Tillyer investigated nothing. She does not know who designed that airport gate. Instead, with no attempt to understand how the design happened or who did it she applied her preconceived notions about how men essentially are and how women essentially are and decided to blame men for a design she didn’t like. If I had written that article, I’d have begun by investigating the design process that produced that gate, and if I’d discovered my suspicions were correct — that nobody had looped passengers into the design process — I’d have written an article titled “Design needs more understanding, less toxic uninformed speculation”.

I think rhetorically the choice to deemphasize morality in favor of effectiveness was the right one, but that does not mean I do not see this as a moral issue.

Our social justice discourse has become hopelessly mired in questions of Who. Who is doing the wrong thing to whom? What category of person does it? What category of person suffers? But this is exactly how irresolvable resentments are formed, entrenched and intensified. Justice is traditionally depicted blindfolded for good reason.

If we want to live in a just society, we need to refocus on the How of justice: the How of learning, understanding, interpreting and responding to specific people in specific contexts.

This kind of investigation into particulars is difficult, tiring and uninspiring work, and it is no fun at all. In this work we constantly discover where we were wrong (despite every appearance of self-evident, no-brainer truth), because that is what truth requires.

In pursuit of truth, we lose our sense of omniscience, fiery self-righteousness and uncompromising conviction, and acquire more caution, patience, reticence, reflection, humility, self-skepticism and nuance. These qualities may not be rousing, inspiring, galvanizing, romantically gratifying or revolutionary — but they are judicious.

If we truly want justice — as opposed to revenge, venting of resentment and intoxication of table-turning aggression —  we need to re-acquire a taste for the judicious virtues.

Betrayal of liberalism in the name of liberalism

This passage from Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country (1997) helps me pinpoint the shift from a predominant liberalism to illiberalism in the popular left:

The academic, cultural Left approves — in a rather distant and lofty way — of the activities of these surviving reformists. But it retains a conviction which solidified in the late Sixties. It thinks that the system, and not just the laws, must be changed. Reformism is not good enough. Because the very vocabulary of liberal politics is infected with dubious presuppositions which need to be exposed, the first task of the Left must be, just as Confucius said, the rectification of names. The concern to do what the Sixties called “naming the system” takes precedence over reforming the laws.

“The system” is sometimes identified as “late capitalism,” but the cultural Left does not think much about what the alternatives to a market economy might be, or about how to combine political freedom with centralized economic decisionmaking. Nor does it spend much time asking whether Americans are undertaxed, or how much of a welfare state the country can afford, or whether the United States should back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. When the Right proclaims that socialism has failed, and that capitalism is the only alternative, the cultural Left has little to say in reply. For it prefers not to talk about money. Its principal enemy is a mind-set rather than a set of economic arrangements — a way of thinking which is, supposedly, at the root of both selfishness and sadism. This way of thinking is sometimes called “Cold War ideology,” sometimes “technocratic rationality,” and sometimes “phallogocentrism” (the cultural Left comes up with fresh sobriquets every year). It is a mind-set nurtured by the patriarchal and capitalist institutions of the industrial West, and its bad effects are most clearly visible in the United States.

To subvert this way of thinking. the academic Left believes, we must teach Americans to recognize otherness. To this end, leftists have helped to put together such academic disciplines as women’s history, black history, gay studies, Hispanic-American studies, and migrant studies. This has led Stefan Collini to remark that in the United States, though not in Britain. the term “cultural studies” means victim studies.” Cellini’s choice of phrase has been resented, but he was making a good point: namely, that such programs were created not out of the sort of curiosity about diverse forms of human life which gave rise to cultural anthropology, but rather from a sense of what America needed in order to make itself a better place. The principal motive behind the new directions taken in scholarship in the United States since the Sixties has been the urge to do something for people who have been humiliated — to help victims of socially acceptable forms of sadism by making such sadism no longer acceptable.

Whereas the top-down initiatives of the Old Left had tried to help people who were humiliated by poverty and unemployment, or by what Richard Sennett has called the “hidden injuries of class, ” the top-down initiatives of the post-Sixties left have been directed toward people who are humiliated for reasons other than economic status. Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer­park studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and residents of trailer parks are not “other” in the relevant sense. To be other in this sense you must bear an ineradicable stigma, one which makes you a victim of socially accepted sadism rather than merely of economic selfishness.

This cultural Left has had extraordinary success. In addition to being centers of genuinely original scholarship, the new academic programs have done what they were, semi­ consciously, designed to do: they have decreased the amount of sadism in our society. Especially among college graduates, the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century. The tone in which educated men talk about women, and educated whites about blacks, is very different from what it was before the Sixties. Life for homosexual Americans, beleaguered and dangerous as it still is, is better than it was before Stonewall. The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers at as “politically correct” has made America a far more civilized society than it was thirty years ago. Except for a few Supreme Court decisions, there has been little change for the better in our country’s laws since the Sixties. But the change in the way we treat one another has been enormous.

The key phrase is “the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century.” This resonates with my own understanding, and I believe that actually was the left’s mission until fairly recently. We were supposed to oppose the humiliation of other people, and most of all, from humiliating others on the basic of categories we have ourselves have assigned them.

But what I am seeing now is a very strong desire for the humiliated to finally get their turn to humiliate.

Most folks on the popular left see this counter-humiliation in terms of a financial metaphor — as a sort of “social capital” account, debited when praised, honored or granted of privileges, and withdrawn against when criticized, scorned or penalized.

I’m a little skeptical that many have even questioned this metaphor, which functions as a Kuhnian paradigm among subscribers of the left worldview, and which unconsciously guide all their thinking, judgments and even their perceptions. I have also seen little evidence many of them have questioned the either the scientific or moral validity of the sweeping generalizations they make and their applications of these generalizations to individuals to whom they assign to categories. This practice was once condemned by all liberals as as prejudice, but prejudice has been redefined to allow encourage people of certain disprivileged categories to vent their resentments on individuals of other categories.

I don’t believe privilege functions like one fund that can be transferred to another through inflicting humiliation. Yes, there does seem to be short-term influx of visceral pleasure on one side at the apparent “expense” of the other, but the pleasure gains soon evaporate, while the anger of the humiliated lingers and festers, and ultimately the sum of the transaction is a red negative. In fact, there was no transaction, only an abusive interaction performed for the sake of getting to be the abuser — in other words, sadistic pleasure.

I also don’t believe individuals automatically get to draw from cultural capital held in common by social categories. There is no such thing as a quantity of “white male heterosexual” prestige anyone of that category can access and use or spend wherever they wish. Social capital just doesn’t work that way. Treating categories constructed on resemblances one has observed as realities capable of intention, moral agency, practical effectiveness is reification, a confusion of what a subject views as true and the reality beyond what a subject imagines. (And of course, the social or legal imposition of one’s own reifications upon real individuals who do not share one’s beliefs about the reality or the properties or the theoretical justifications of these categories, however much one is convinced of their validy, is one of the traditional core prohibitions of liberalism.)

And, finally, I don’t think people who lash out at various categories of person are actually motivated by a desire to improve the world, however much they pose as champions of the oppressed and however much they justify their attitudes and actions with social scientistic arguments, one-mindedness with everyone who matters, and memories of tearful moments of insight cuddled up with their favorite novels on Sunday afternoons.

All these highminded concepts, proud unanimity and empathetic sentiments are prettifying rationalizations for enjoying what liberalism has always forbidden on principle: hatred of the Other.

And they are most definitely not, as they claim, “punching up”. It is only their refusal to factor class into their assessments of relative privilege that permit this delusion of “speaking truth to power”. As Thomas Frank persuasively pointed out, they’re actually “speaking truth to weakness” from a position of superior class (remember class, fellow liberals?) and generating enormous resentment in a group that is becoming dangerously sick of being scolded. Pay attention to the actual educational pedigree, income bracket, actual, individual institutional position and relative vulnerabilities of who is doing the judgmental confrontation and who is being judged, and you’ll certainly find a power differential, but not the one doing the judging sees or wants you to see.

Everyone outside the ideological sphere of the pop-left and radical academic left sees it though, plain as day. And this number includes not only the awful elements of the right. It also includes leftists who still believe in liberalism, Moderate libertarians and most centrists. To us, this looks very bad, not only practically, but ethically. It is not only a matter of electoral consequences, it is a matter of where we stand on the most important matters, whether we can actually count people who carry on this way as allies at all.

If liberals do not renounce casual infliction of humiliation on despised categories of people, bad things are definitely going to happen, and those things will happen as a direct result of indulging prejudice, hate and sadism. There is no honor in such calamities, only disgrace and discredit.

Once again, I will quote one of America’s greatest liberals, Martin Luther King.

In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself.

Liberals need to get back to the morality that alone justifies us, and we need to return to practicing what we preach. We mist stand up to prejudice, hatred and humiliation of all our fellow Americans, whoever the perpetrator and whoever the target, and whatever the rationalization.

Master of the Golden Rule

Imagine a man sitting down and pondering the Golden Rule. He thinks through what he knows to be true, what he loves and desires, and what practices have served him well in his life. Then he imagines a world where everyone is required to think, feel and do what he knows to be best. He asks himself if he would like someone to impose these norms upon him. Yes he would. So he does unto others as he would like done unto himself.

Every person should be heard

Just because a person shouldn’t be believed, it doesn’t mean that person shouldn’t be listened to.

It is dehumanizing for a person to be judged as not worth listening to, and it is inhumanizing to make oneself the judge of whose voice is heard and whose is silenced.

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People are astonished when I say nobody should always automatically be believed about anything, but that all people should always automatically be heard.

What? The right to a trial is a fundamental principle of liberalism!

And people want to give even more emphasis to STEM disciplines. As if the main problems of humankind are technical problems. As if even more technology will save us from our social problems.

When the goal of educating citizens is lost, and education becomes training employees for industry, or worse, credentialing employees for employment, this is what happens.

Suffering about suffering

When painless pleasurable existence is assumed to be the normal state of life, and pain and displeasure to be abnormal, pain and displeasure are compounded with metapain and metadispleasure — suffering — at the fact of pain and displeasure: something is happening that should not be happening.

If it is assumed that normality is natural and abnormality is artificial the question of agent automatically arises: who caused this suffering?

And unless we work hard to understand otherwise, we will naturally view all suffering in terms of the suffering we have suffered. We will look around and see some fellow-sufferers and many non-sufferers.

We can also look into history and find other non-sufferers of suffering as we know it.

My kind live like I do and suffer as I do.

“Others created and continue to create my abnormal conditions of suffering. Worse, they pretend that they, too, suffer, even though they do not know what suffering is.”

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My view: existence itself causes suffering.

We diminish suffering and generate pleasure through collaborative effort.

Sustained diminishment of suffering is a miracle of human ingenuity — a glorious artificiality — which requires vast collaborative effort to sustain, much less expand.

The greatest threat to the continuation of this effort is the loss of understanding that our considerable (albeit imperfect) state of comfort is an accomplishment of centuries of collaboration, and the relapse into the imbecilic resentment of assigning blame to others in the present and in the past for the suffering one experiences and the failure to recognize the universality of suffering.

Instead of the compassion, solidarity and collaboration we live in a world of suffering collective solipsists glaring resentfully at those who do not suffer and who seem the likely culprits and beneficiaries of our suffering, my suffering, the only suffering that exists as far as I can tell.