Category Archives: Unpopular Opinions

Optimism and Futility

People often tell me that they find my writing optimistic. Indeed, this is a primary reason people frequently give me for why they enjoy my writing. It’s just so optimistic. Well, not saccharine-sweet, over-the-top optimistic, but optimistic nonetheless.

I find this hilarious.

I wouldn’t self-identify as an optimist, and those who know me are likely to be familiar with my habit of giving a big teenage eye roll to concepts like ‘hope’ while periodically ranting about why hope is not required. But perhaps I’m an optimist despite myself.

Or perhaps I simply spend too much time reading Camus, who famously argues that we must find joy and meaning in futile and hopeless labor. Indeed, we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

We live in dark times. Every day the news seems to get worse, and our social challenges run so deep and come from so many directions that it seems nearly impossible that we could even begin to tackle them at all.

But that is no reason not to try.

And this, I suppose, is why I get labeled an optimist. Given the choice between action and paralyzed grief, I’d choose action every time. It’s really the only choice there is.

I’d like to think that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice; that if we work hard enough and fight forcefully enough we can indeed leave this world a little better than we found it.

But the truth is, none of that matters. It hardly matters if all this amounts to is hopeless and futile labor because that is all there is – inaction isn’t a viable option.

All that is left is to return to our rock, to keep on pushing even when we know that there is no point. We keep on fighting for justice – ceaselessly, tirelessly working towards that vision; straining with all our might – because to do otherwise is untenable. As Camus writes, the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.

Indeed, one must imagine Sisyphus happy.

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On Violence and Protest

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the role of violence in social movements. Such violence could take many forms, from punching nazis to property damage.

Conventional wisdom among the mainstream left is that such violence isn’t a good tactic: not only is morally problematic, it is typically unsuccessful.

In his biography of Gandhi, Bhikhu Parekh describes Gandhi’s utility argument against violence, which went hand in hand with his moral argument against violence:

Gandhi further argued that violence rarely achieved lasting results. An act of violence was deemed to be successful when it achieved its immediate objectives. However, if it were to be judged by its long-term consequences, our conclusion would have to be very different. Every apparently successful act of violence encouraged the belief that it was the only effective way to achieve the desired goal, and developed the habit of using violence every time ran into opposition. Society thus became used to it and never felt compelled to explore an alternative. Violence also tended to generate an inflammatory spiral. Every successful use blunted the community’s moral sensibility and raised its threshold of violence, so that over time an increasingly larger amount became necessary to achieve the same results.

There are some compelling points in that argument, but it fails to address the larger question: is violence never a justifiable means for social change, either morally or pragmatically?

After all, Gandhi’s level of commitment to non-violence may not be the example we want to follow. In an extreme example of pacifism, Gandhi wrote of Jews in World War II Germany:

And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring [Jews] an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can…The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing, death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.

In contrast to Gandhi’s view, there are many reasons to think violence in response to genocide may be permissible – or should even be encouraged.

My friend Joshua Miller recently reflected on this question, writing:

…in many ways, the canonization of Gandhi and Martin Luther King have served to create an artificial standard of non-violence that no social movement can ever really achieve and that neither the Civil Rights movement nor the Indian independence movement actually achieved. Plus, if violent repression by the police goes unmentioned in the media but activist violence becomes a regular topic of debate, then it will appear that the only violence is coming from the activists. 

I particularly appreciate his insight regarding the ‘canonization’ of Gandhi and King – they both deserve praise for their work and impacts, but we tend to enshrine them as peaceful activists who could do no wrong; who should be emulated at all costs. Malcolm X, on the other hand, is pushed by the wayside, his story is less told. Yet he did have an important and lasting impact on the American civil rights movement; could King’s pacifism have succeeded without Malcom X’s radicalism?

I have no easy answers to these question; indeed, such easy answers do not exist. But I think we owe it to ourselves to think through these questions – is violent protest ever morally justified? If it can be morally justified at times, is it ever pragmatically justified? Do our collective memories of history really capture what happened, or do we tell ourselves a simpler, softer story – do we only remember the way we wish it had happened?

Perhaps, as Camus wrote, there is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.

 

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Hope and Utopia

There is a common sentiment that hope is required for social action. We must hold on to hope. We must not give in to despair.

Perhaps it is simply the contrarian in me, but I cannot help but sigh when hearing these exhortations. We must hold on to hope? Why?

On the surface, I suppose it seem like a perfectly reasonably thing to say. So reasonable, in fact, that people often don’t take the time to justify the claim. We must hold on to hope as surely as we must see that the sky is blue – it is just the way things are.

This only makes me question harder.

In The Task of Utopia, Erin McKenna defends the value of utopian visions, repeating several times throughout the book, “utopian visions are visions of hope.” By which she means that they “challenge us to explore a range of possible human conditions.”

Hope is required, then, because only hope can inspire us to imagine that things might be different and only hope can motivate us to work towards those visions.

Importantly, McKenna advocates against static, end-state models of utopia, in which “hope” essentially becomes shorthand for “hope that a (near) perfect future is possible and achievable.”

Instead, McKenna articulates her hopeful vision as a process:

If one can get beyond trying to achieve final perfect end-states and accept that there are instead multiple possible futures-in-process, one has taken the first step in understanding the responsibility each of us has to the future in deciding how to live our lives now.

In this way, “hope” is a sort of future-awareness. It is not a feeling or an emotion per se, but minimally hope is a sense that there will be a future self which our present self has some power over shaping.

I generally take the term “hope” to be somewhat more optimistically inclined, but even under this broad definition, I still find myself skeptical of hope as a necessity.

Consider the character of Jean Tarrou from Albert Camus’ The Plague. After the city of Oran is quarantined following a deadly outbreak of plague, Tarrou organizes volunteers to help the sick and try to fight off the plague.

One could argue that he had hope in the manner described above – perhaps he imagined a future in which the city was no longer wracked by disease; perhaps he imagined his actions could play a role in creating that future. Such a future-vision combined with a sense of agency could be described as hope.

But it is exactly this story which motivates me to be skeptical of hope as a required element of social change.

The situation in Oran is desperate. There is every reason to think that all the city’s inhabitants will eventually succumb to the plague. Perhaps Tarrou’s efforts may stave off some deaths for a time, but in the middle of the novel it is reasonable to believe that Tarrou’s efforts will make no real difference. Either way, the outcome will be the same.

Many of Oran’s inhabitants seem to feel this way. In the face of almost certain death, people celebrate wildly at night, finally free of the taboos and inhibitions which had previously kept them more orderly. They had lost a vision of the future in which their actions played a part. They had lost hope.

Yet there is no reason to think that Tarrou felt any differently. Faced with almost certain death, accepting of the knowledge that his actions would make no difference, Tarrou still works to fight the plague.

He has no hope, it is simply what you do.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, another piece by Camus, he snarkily comments of Sisyphus’ labor that “the gods had thought that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”

But life is futile and hopeless labor. This is, in fact, the essence of being alive. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” Camus writes.

Hope is not required.

I am heavily persuaded by McKenna’s process-model of utopia, but find hope to be a somewhat superfluous element. Her vision requires the imagination to conceive of possible futures, and it takes the agency to act in seeking those possible futures, but it does not require hope that those futures are achievable nor hope that one’s efforts will have impact.

In fact, I imagine the process-model as thriving better without hope. This vision finds that the future is and always will be imperfect. Perfection is neither desirable nor achievable. Abandoning hope means accepting the future as flawed, accepting ourselves as flawed. Most of us will probably have no impact, and most of us will never witness the futures we dream of. But that lack of hope is not a reason not to act – indeed, in abandoning such hope, our actions and our choices are all that we have left.

 

 

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Discontent of the Commons

In a session on “The Politics of Discontent” at this year’s Frontiers of Democracy conference, democracy scholar Alison Staudinger proposed considering “discontent” as a common pool resource. I am deeply intrigued by this idea, and interested to understand just what that might mean.

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin popularized the concept of the “Tragedy of the Commons,” describing the game-theoretic prisoner’s dilemma which communities of people face when utilizing some common resource:

Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain….the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

This idea has been applied to a wide variety of resources which can be broadly categorized along two spectrums: excludable and subtractable. As the names suggest, excludable indicates whether or not people can be easily excluded from a resource while subtractable indicates whether use of a resource by one person restricts use of the resource by another.

The clothes I am wearing are both excludable and subtractable – I can prevent your use of them, and you cannot use them while I am using them. Wikipedia is non-excludable and non-subtactable – I cannot prevent your use and my use does not diminish yours. If Wikipedia added a paywall or if a State blocked its use, it would become excludable.

Seen as a common pool resource, discontentment would seem to fit in this non-excludable, non-subtactable category. I cannot stop you from feeling discontent, and I can be discontent without infringing on your ability to also be discontent.

Yet, this is perhaps not the most helpful framework. The political challenges we face today are not so much that people feel discontent – rather the challenge is the causes and repercussions of that discontent.

It is a fundamental aspect of a pluralist society that not everyone will agree all of the time. We each have different needs and wants, and our desired outcomes will at times be in conflict. We can’t all get what we want.

Under a simple definition, then, a person is discontent if they do not get their way. Since not everyone in a pluralistic society can simultaneously have their way, it is intrinsic that some portion of people will be discontent with any given issue.

This presents at least two possible social challenges connected to discontent. If discontent is inequitably and systemically distributed, those who have more discontent with have reason to see the system as unjust. If people experience the system as treating them unjustly, they will have reason to try to change the system – minimizing their own discontentment while making someone else more discontent.

Here, discontent seems to no longer be a resource – rather can be better interpreted as the absence of a resource.

The word that comes to mind here is power.

People with power can get the outcomes they desire, minimizing their discontent; people without power are subject to the whims of those with power – increasing the likelihood that they will not get the outcomes they desire and increasing their discontent.

Power, I would argue, is an excludable and subtractable resource. Those with power have certainly been known to exclude others from acquiring power, and if I have power, it does, I think, diminish your ability to have power.

This model unites people from all sides of the political spectrum who feel discontent under current systems and institutions. Some may feel they are losing power, some may never of had much power in the first place.

And the highest elites may feel most secure in the continuance of their power if everyone else is busy fighting over who gets whatever scraps are left.

Elinor Ostrom, the brilliant economist who argued that the drama of the commons need not be a tragedy, traveled around the world empirically studying communal and institutional management of common pool resources.

In Covenants, Collective Action, and Common-Pool Resources, Ostrom argues that conflict and destruction arise when “those involved act independently owing to a lack of communication or an incapacity to make credible commitments.” On the other hand, if members of a community “can communicate, agree on norms, monitor each other, and sanction noncompliance to their own covenants, then overuse, conflict, and the destruction of [common pool resources] can be reduced substantially.”

Managing common pool resources, then, is difficult but not impossible.

“If those who know the most about local time-and-place information and incentives are given sufficient autonomy to reach and enforce local covenants,” she argues. “They frequently are able to devise rules well tailored to the problems they face.”

In addition to this autonomy of the people, communication is essential:

“When symmetric subjects are given opportunities to communicate and devise their own agreements and sanctioning arrangements, then the outcomes approximate optimality,” Ostrom writes. “These findings are surprising for many theorists, because the capacity to communicate without an external enforcer for monitoring and sanctioning behavior inconsistent with covenantal agreements is considered to be mere ‘cheap talk’ having no impact on the strategic structure of the game.”

In seeing the rise of populism, in watching discontented people making bad political decisions, in seeing the mismanagement of a common pool resource, the liberal impulse is often to solve the problem through stronger regulation – to create institutions nominally managed by the people which can step in with rules and authority in order to overcome the destructive self-interest and poorly-informed actions of individual actors.

But perhaps Ostrom’s work on common pool resources ought to give us pause – “the people” may not collectively be wise, but they have the ability to surprise us; to work out their differences and to successfully self-manage in ways that external enforcing institutions could never accomplish.

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Self-Skepticism

I have complained before about the common solution to the so-called “confidence gap” – that those with less confidence (typically women) should simply behave more like their confident (typically male) peers.

There’s a whole, complex, gender dynamic to this conversation, but even putting that issue aside, I have a hard time accepting that the world would be better if more people were arrogant.

Of course, those advocating for this shift don’t call it arrogance, preferring the positive term of confidence, but there is a fine line between the two. If a person lacks the confidence to share a meaningful insight, that is a problem. But it is just as problematic – perhaps even more problematic – when someone with unfounded confidence continually dominates the conversation.

Confidence is not intrinsically good.

Thinking before you speak, questioning your own abilities – these are good, valuable traits. It’s only at their extreme of paralyzing inaction that these traits become problematic. Similarly, confidence is appropriate in moderation, but quickly becomes tiring at its own extreme of arrogance.

Finding a balance between the two is the skill we all ought to work on becoming good at.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a good word for the opposite of over-confidence. Modesty is one, but it doesn’t quite capture the concept I’m trying to get at. Modesty is a trait of accomplished people who could reasonably be arrogant but manage not to be. Can you be modest while sincerely unsure of yourself?

I’ve started using the term self-skeptism; a sort of healthy, self-critique.

The word skeptic has a somewhat complicated etymological history, but is derived in part from the Greek skeptesthai meaning, “to reflect, look, view.” This is the same root as the word “scope.”

It implies a certain suspension of belief – an ability to step back and judge something empirically rather than biased by what you already believe. And, it implies that skeptical inquiry is a valuable process of growth. The skeptic neither loves nor hates the subject they are skeptical about – rather, they hope to get at a better, deeper understanding through the process of inquiry.

Applied to one’s self, then – though perhaps more typically called by the general term of self-reflection – self-skepticism can be seen as the process of trying to become a better person through healthy skepticism of yourself as you currently are.

This, to me, lacks the judgement implied by “lacking confidence,” while embracing that we are all flawed and imperfect in our own ways – though we can always, always work to become better.

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Embracing Behinity

Throughout the week, I’ve been reflecting on Sándor Szathmári’s great work of social satire, Voyage to Kazohinia. The work critiques a number of social institutions, but largely seems to focus on a broader question: is an ideal society one at equilibrium or one which embraces extremes?

Szathmári presents this question by introducing us, through the shipwrecked Englishman Gulliver, to two contrasting societies: the brilliant, efficient and loveless Hins and the backwards, chaotic, and destructive Behins.

Given the Hin’s complete lack of love, art, and unique character, one might be inclined to favor the mad but passionate world of the Behins, though Szathmári clearly seems to favor the ordered society of the Hins.

Following the principal of kazo – mathematical clarity – the Hins naturally act “so that the individual, through society, reaches the greatest possible well-being and comfort.” The Behins, on the other hand, are “kazi” – a term for the irrationality which captures everything not kazo.

While I have commented this week on the arguments favoring both types of communities and on reasons why we might want to force a choice between the two rather than just rejecting the premise all together, I have yet to actually answer the question for myself.

On this topic, I have found myself greatly torn.

On the one hand, the peaceful, equitable, and rational world of the Hins is clearly the more reasonable of the two societies. Nearly every logical thought argues in its favor.

Yet the Hin’s lack of art, of passion, of love seems too much to bear. It nearly seems worth sacrificing peace and equity for these peculiarities that make us so deeply human.

Furthermore, being generally inclined to favor unpopular opinions makes me want to argue for the Behinistic perspective on principle. If the kazo world of the Hins is so clearly the rational choice, the troublemaker and contrarian in me just has to push against it.

This instinct is quite clearly kazi.

Additionally, that proud desire to be kazi in the face of all reason strikes me as potentially little more than an arrogantly American trait.

One of my Japanese teachers once told me that she couldn’t understand why Americans took such pride in being individualistic. We fancy ourselves as standing up against the crowd, as being brave radicals willing to boldly buck conventional norms. My teacher just laughed. You think doing what you want is hard? Doing what’s best for others is harder.

As something of an aside here, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that in addition to being a clever critique of western society at large, Szathmári’s novel brilliantly satirizes the west’s Orientalism.

The Hins – whose philosophy I previously compared to Lao Tzu‘s – encapsulates everything “the west” thinks of “the east.” They do not, of course, reflect any real culture existing in the world, but our English Gulliver views them exactly as he might if he had found himself among any of the real peoples of East Asia.

Gulliver comments that “the Behins respected the Hins very much even though they loathed them,” a sentiment which perfectly encapsulates Gulliver’s own attitude. He is impressed by their efficiency and technological innovations, but hates their uniformity and dispassion.

This duality epitomizes the sentiments of Orientalism, and is particularly resonant of western views of Japan around the second world war, when Kazohinia was written. It is no accident that Gulliver was being deployed to Japan when he was shipwrecked.

The Behins, on the other hand, represent the west as it is, disrobed from the vain glory in which it sees itself. One could also make a strong argument that the Behins represent eastern views of the west, but either way Szathmári seems to write in the hopes of convincing his Behinistic western audience to be a little less kazi – using our own stereotypes to highlight our failings and the true ideal we neglect.

And thus I come to my final conclusion. While I put little stock in the gross over-generalizations of cultures, whether as a product of my culture or a product of my experiences, I find myself irreparably kazi. I know rationally that the kazo life is better, but I cannot accept it; I could not survive.

Like Foucault, I’m inclined to find that madness is little more than a social construct and, like Lewis Carroll, I’m inclined to believe we are all mad here.

The whole world is kazi, and – while I’d like to work to make the world a little more kazo – I’m no less Behin than anyone else.

Ironically, it would be kazi to assume otherwise. Throughout Gulliver’s time among the Behins he finds people who rightly mock the foolish beliefs and invented norms of their kazi peers. The greatest error comes, though, when these Behins don’t recognize the same foolishness within themselves. They simply substitute one kazi belief for another.

To not recognize one’s own Behinity, then, seems the height of madness.

At the end of the novel, Szathmári tells as about a certain kind of Behin “whose only Behinity is that he doesn’t realize among whom he lives; for it could not be imagined, could it, that someone aware of the Behinistic disease would still want to explain reality to them?”

I take this as a direct appeal to the reader: having been enlightened as to the Behinistic disease and possibly identifying Behinistic traits within ourselves, we are urged to move beyond our kazi instincts and embrace the better path of kazo. The Hins, we learn, were once Behins themselves.

This is, perhaps, a wise argument, but, in typical fashion, I find myself siding with Camus. The world is indeed absurd and the only thing left is to embrace that absurdity.

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Equilibrium, Madness, and Utopia

Is it possible to have the good without the bad? Does beauty create ugliness and does love beget hate?

These questions are often explored in dystopian fiction, but Szathmári Sándor’s Voyage to Kazohinia is notable in its resounding answer. Yes, these opposites endlessly create each other, Szathmári argues, and thus is it better to have neither.

It is better to leave passion and madness behind in favor of the calm stability of reason.

Perhaps this seems like not such a bold claim. Reason is certainly favorable, and ugliness and hate should be gladly left behind.

Yet, it is not quite as simple as that. The premise of the question finds that to abandon hate is to give up love, that defeating all the ills of society can only be accomplished by relinquishing the passion and spirit we hold most dear.

The perfect society is the monotonous society. Ideal and unchanging.

In making this point, Szathmári introduces us to the Hins. Technologically advanced, the Hins suffer no hunger or conflict. They live in equilibrium and harmony, through the mathematical clarity of kazo. They have no need for police or money; no need for government institutions regulating behavior. They each behave perfectly and have, quite sincerely, a perfect society.

But there is, perhaps, something unsatisfying in their existence.

We meet the Hins through Gulliver, our proud English protagonist. And while we might join the author in snickering at his cultural absurdities, there is one element of Gulliver’s impression of the Hins which resonates.

It starts with small observations. The Hins, we learn, “have no expression for taking delight in something.” A crowded beach is bathed in silence; among the Hins, “everybody was a stranger; not a single greeting was to be heard. Each simply did not exist for the other.”

Our hero begins struggling against this dispassionate view. He is impressed by the technological advancement of the Hins, but distraught by their seeming lack of feeling and soul. He desperately seeks to explain his culture to his Hin acquaintance, Zatamon, who interprets his words through the core Hin concepts of kazo, mathematical perfection, and its opposite, kazi.

After Gulliver carefully explains a number of concepts – friend, hatred, wife, happiness, theater, art, and political parties – Zatamon expresses his disappointment:

In your country the kazo is considered to apply to certain groups only, which, however, already means that it is not kazo as you do not observe it where others are concerned. Because you imagine some persons closer to yourselves and favor them, this can only be done at the same time you offer less or nothing to others. That is, both the things you give your friends and those you do not give others bear all the marks of the kazi concept. These friends do not receive out of need, or on the basis of a general state of equilibrium – at least this is what I gather from your words – but purely because you have invented the kazi idea of ‘friendship.’

…And as for the word ‘love,’ it seems to me you wish to indicate with this that people outside an exclusive circle are to be treated beneath the merit of their existence. But why do you call the same thing hatred on other occasions?

The Hins have no love or beauty or friendship because the mere conceptualization of such things existing indicates the existence of their opposites. They throw society out of balance, bring disharmony where harmony would exist otherwise. This might seem a tragic loss to our own kazi sensibilities, but giving up the extremes in favor of equilibrium is clearly the logical thing to do.

It should be noted, of course, that the philosophy which Szathmári advances here is by no means unique to the fictional Hins. Consider this eloquent passage from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

“Practice not-doing,” Lao Tzu advises, “and everything will fall into place.”

That is kazo.

This way of thinking is in bold contrast to the conclusions of others who have pondered this challenge of duality.

In 1959 – eighteen years after Kazohinia, but before it was translated to English – American author Robert Heinlein comes to a different conclusion in his novel Starship Troopers.

Heinlein similarly sees a tension between an idyllic but mundane society and a passionate society of hardship and growth.

Writing in the early years of the Vietnam War, Heinlein imagines a paradise planet called Sanctuary. Life is easy on Sanctuary, a tempting home for weary soldiers. But, while Szathmári genuinely advocates for the lifestyle of the Hins, Heinlein is clear that he sees such an appealing ideal as a trap.

The descendants of Sanctuary colonists will not evolve. “So what happens?” Heinlein asks. “Do they stay frozen at their present level while the rest of the human race moves on past them, until they are living fossils, as out of place as a pithecanthropus in a space ship?”

For Heinlein, it is not problematic that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are inextricably intertwined – both are a necessary part of human existence. Indeed, it is the challenge of living which truly makes us alive. Life on Sanctuary is no life at all.

This is the view of our Gulliver among the Hins. While Szathmári seems to advocate for the ideal society of the Hins, he knows such a view is unlikely to be adopted easily. Becoming fully acquainted with the dull, effortless, efficiency of Hin life, our hero finds himself filled with despair.

A feeling of terrible powerlessness came over me. I was buried alive among the dead in this island in the suffocating atmosphere of which the life-thirsty lung panted in vain. And there was no escape. I was to wither away here, without air and life…

Thus finding the Hins to be efficient but lifeless automatons, and painfully deprived of the passions he deems living, our hero makes his escape. He goes to live amongst the Behins, those  beings which the Hins find to be incurably kazi. 

Life amongst the Behins is so mad as to be hardly worth relaying. Gulliver is relieved to leave the colorless world of the Hins, only to find his new home “the most terrible bedlam in the world.”

Of course, the Behins are hardly more mad than we are. They greet each other with meaningless phrases and useless physical contact. They follow a convoluted set of social norms which are constantly changing and entirely unpredictable. They divide themselves into constantly warring factions that fight over nothing more than whether the circle or square is a more perfect geometric shape. They create work that doesn’t need to be done in order to enforce an arbitrary system in which the rich earn more than the poor. They are embarrassed to speak of basic physical processes (such as eating). They use metaphors which don’t in any way relate to the actual objects they are discussing. Women pay to have their faces mutilated in the name of beauty.

Yes, the Behins are quite mad.

This then, is the price of accepting the extremes. Of taking in love, hate, joy, and despair. It does, indeed, disrupt the unchanging world of the Hins, but while Heinlein sees these extremes as the essence of life, Szathmári argues the opposite – such madness is not life at all.

And while you are pondering which type of life makes you more alive, there is one more element of Szathmári’s deeply amusing satire worth mentioning.

In Behinistic society, people who speak the truth, who exercise reason, are frequently burned at the stake. Therefore, as Gulliver explains:

If one wanted to say something particularly sensible and dangerous he put a cap and bells on his head and put his fingers into his mouth. And the Behins listened to him with great amusement…

These makrus, as they were known, are the only ones who are free to speak the truth; at the cost that they are laughed at and never understood.

While “some openly described how stupid and wretched the Behin life was,” listeners always believed the words of a makru to apply only to their enemies. “…It never occurred to them that all the vile words the makrus wrote also applied to their own lives.”

In fact, while living amongst the Behins Gulliver begins writing the travel diary which we are ostensibly reading. His friend discovers the text and, finding his own name frequently amid the list of mad occurrences, asks out loud who that name is supposed to represent.

Yet this same friend guffaws moments later finding distasteful but accurate descriptions of a local dignitary. The friend encourages Gulliver to publish his comical work, assuring him that he need not fear the dignitary’s wrath: “How do you imagine that he would recognize himself?”

Considering the opportunity to publish his work among the Behins, our Gulliver reflects:

The proposal was enticing but after some thinking I realized that for the very same reason there was no point in publishing it. How could it be imagined that reading it would make them even one iota cleverer or would render their lives one jot more endurable with such a lack of comprehension? Should I publish the account of my travels? It deserved a lot better than to be object of idiots’ imbecilic guffaws.

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On Trolls and Dissenters

Community meetings of all types and topics are frequently endangered by a common complication: that guy.

The person who speaks longer than anyone wants them to, who raises concerns that are unpopular amongst the broader public, or who unfailing uses every public platform as an opportunity to promote their pet issue, whether it is on topic or not.

Many a meeting has been derailed by this character’s irrelevant ravings, and many a community member has been silenced – fearing that if they spoke up they might appear as mad.

But there’s an interesting dilemma in this portrayal: of the many actions, motivations, and outcomes which could be lumped into this category some of them productive and some of them not.

Manin persuasively argues that debate of conflicting views is a necessary condition for successful deliberation – with groups otherwise likely to default towards prevailing norms. Diversity of views is not enough; “disagreement in face-to-face interactions generates psychic discomfort” which groups will avoid given the opportunity.

Good deliberation, then, requires disagreement and debate as a core element – not as something which may arise or not as the context decides.

How, then, can one distinguish the actions of a counter-productive troll and a valuable dissenter? Many times, the unpopular thing needs to be said.

Rachel Barney’s excellent [Aristotle], On Trolling – written, as the name implies, in the spirit of Aristotle, lends some helpful guidance to this question.”Every community of speakers holds certain goods in common, and with them the conversation [dialegesthai] as an end in itself; and the troll is one who seeks to damage it from within.”

The troll, then actively seeks to destroy a community, to set “the community apart from each other” and introduce “strife where before there was scarcely disagreement.”

Barney/Aristotle is careful to note that the troll can be distinguished from the productive dissenter which Manin imagines:

One might wonder whether there is an art of trolling and an excellence; and indeed some say that Socrates was a troll, and so that the good man also trolls. And this is in fact what the troll claims: that he is a gadfly and beneficial, and without him to ‘stir up’ the thread it would become dull and unintelligent. But this is incorrect. For Socrates was speaking frankly when he told the Athenians to care for their souls, rather than money and honors, and showed that they lacked knowledge. And this is not trolling but the contrary, exhortation and truth-telling— even if the citizens get very annoyed. For annoyance results from many kinds of speech; and the peculiarity [idion] of the troll is not annoyance or controversy in general, but confusion and strife among a community who really agree.

Thus the troll takes the guise of a productive dissenter, whom a democratic peoples would do well to embrace, while actually seeking to destroy, not improve, a community through their dissension.

This may be a meaningful epistemic distinction, yet it can be challenging to define in practice. As Manin points out, a “community who really agree” may have simply come to agree through the processes of group dynamics.

Importantly, this type of agreement is not intrinsically related to issues of power and oppression. That is, while one may argue that agreement arrived through coercion is not really agreement at all, Manin is primarily concerned with instances where a group can be genuinely said to agree. The root of this surface agreement may not be coercion at all, but rather an unfortunate result of the fact that individuals tend to be biased and, worse yet, “groups process information in a more biased way than individuals do.”

That is, without some gadfly perturbing the system, groups tend to systematically shift toward consensus, “regardless of the merits of the issue being discussed.”

If we, like Barney/Aristotle, are to take trolling as inherently bad, more productive forms of dissent, exhortation, or truth-telling must then be distinguished. Therefore, following Manin, I’d be inclined to push back on defining a troll as one who sows discord amidst a community which agrees. If agreement was achieved through systematic social processes, perhaps a little discord could be good.

One then might seek to capture trolling through a broader definition of motivation: a troll seeks to destroy while a dissenter seeks to improve.

Importantly, though, destruction is not intrinsically beyond a dissenter’s concern: indeed, a dissenter may seek to break corrupt institutions and social structures. To smash context rather than settle for reformist tinkering, as legal scholar Roberto Unger would say.

More accurately, then, a dissenter can be seen as seeking to improve the human condition, apart from the specific context of political structures, while a troll – like Eris – seeks solely to sow discord.

In his 1992 address to Wroclaw University Václav Havel argues in favor of breathing “something of the dissident experience into practical politics.”

“The politics I refer to here cannot be enshrined in or guaranteed by any law, decree, or declaration,” Havel says. “It cannot be hoped that any single, specific political act might bring it about and achieve it. Only the aim of an ideology can be achieved. The aim of this kind of politics, as I understand it, is never completely attainable because this politics is nothing more than a permanent challenge, a never-ending effort that can only in the best possible case leave behind it a certain trace of goodness.”

This permanent challenge is the noble undertaking of the dissenter, whether in the form of sweeping revolution or more mundane provocations.

In the mundane world of practical politics, then, this leaves us still with the problem: how do we distinguish the permanent challenge of the dissenter from the wanton destruction of the troll?

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Is Diversity Enough?

I’ve been reading Manin’s critical Democratic Deliberation: Why We Should Promote Debate Rather Than Discussion.

At the core of his argument, Manin complains that liberal theorists traditionally conflate “diversity of views” with “conflicting views.” Holding that a necessary and sufficient condition for good deliberation is “that participants in discussion hold diverse views and articulate a variety of perspectives, reflecting the heterogeneity of their experiences and backgrounds.”

To be clear, Manin isn’t suggesting that diversity of thought isn’t critical to deliberation – rather, he argues, it is not sufficient.

“Diversity of views is not a sufficient condition for deliberation because it may fail to bring into contact opposing views,” he writes. “It is the opposition of views and reasons that is necessary for deliberation, not just their diversity.”

There are many ways in which the mere presence of diversity may not result in the articulation of divergent views. Social psychology research has well documented the challenges of confirmation bias, where people “systematically misperceive and misinterpret evidence that is counter to their preexisting belief.” Or even avoid conflicting evidence all together.

To make matters worse, Manin points to research which further finds that “groups process information in a more biased way than individuals do, preferring information that supports their prior dominant belief to an even greater extent than individual people.”

More broadly, diverse experiences and views may not always translate directly into divergent opinions or perspectives on a given topic. Manin asks us to imagine a community facing a very reasonable and rational fear: say, a serial killer is on the loose. Discussing a proposal to expand police powers at this time of crisis, “the variety of perspectives and dispersion of social knowledge among them will ensure that many arguments, each deriving from the particular perspective, experience, or background of the speaker, are heard in support of expanding the prerogatives to the police.”

That is, the diverse reasons may all support the same view.

And finally, in a large heterogenous society, diverse opinions and experience may become polarized as fragmented, separate communities. That is, “a variety of internally homogeneous communities will coexist, each ignoring the views of the others.”

And, of course, there is the deep problem of power. Divergent perspectives will often go unspoken in situations where one group or groups have been systematically oppressed and silenced. Where even explicit invitations to freely share their views are rightly perceived as hollow or out-right disingenuous. This is a dynamic which John Gaventa documents powerfully in his study of poor, white, coal miners in the Appalachian Valley.

The damaging impact of this dynamic cannot be understated, as Gaventa argues, “power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce powerlessness. Power relationships, once established, are self-sustaining.”

Finally, there is the simple social challenge that “encountering disagreement”, as Manin writes, “generates psychic discomfort.” People don’t really like to argue.

(Of note here, there is little cross-cultural consideration in Manin, so while mainstream America’s distaste for argumentative discourse is well documented in numerous places, I’m not sure how broad a claim this properly ought to be.)

The solution to this seems simple: argue more. Take “deliberate and affirmative measures” to ensure lively debate and critical discussion. Don’t just assume that if diverse people are present, diverse voices will be heard. Seek out divergent views and conflicting arguments. If no one else says them – argue for them yourself.

This last point, I think, is particularly critical in looking at deliberation through a power-lens. If you are a position of power you are responsible for ensuring that diverse view be heard. This can mean working to create a safe space where people genuinely feel welcomed to share their views – or it can mean saying the unpopular thing yourself, putting it out there as a valid idea, worthy of further consideration.

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Reasoning and Absurdity

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates describes the human soul as consisting of three parts, which he describes through allegory: “two horses and a charioteer.” Furthermore, “one of the horses was good and the other bad.”

More precisely, one horse “is a lover of honour and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory,” while the other, a “crooked lumbering animal,” is “the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.”

This tripartite image captures an understanding the soul which has continued to permeate Western thought. The good horse is man’s noble spirit (thymos), the other his wild appetites (epithymia). The charioteer, tasked with the difficult task balancing the instincts of these two beasts, has the most crucial role: this is man’s reason (logos) itself.

In this struggle, “if the better elements of the mind which lead to order and philosophy prevail, then they pass their life here in happiness and harmony – masters of themselves and orderly.”

Aristotle seems to invoke a similar argument when he comments in Nicomachean Ethics, “as sight is in the body, so is reason in the soul.”

Reason, it seems, is fundamental to who we are as human people – and, perhaps more importantly, is essential to what it means to be a good person.

As with many things, though, this Greek ideal is complicated by the realities of modernity.

This classical Greek understanding goes beyond finding the act of reasoning to be good. Reason is not merely a process through which unique people may come to unique conclusions, rather it is the tool through which we may ultimately uncover Truth. Singular, universal, Truth.

This is problematic in a pluralistic world.

While there may be some moral stances on which all reasonable people could agree, asserting the existence of Truth – whether or not you claim to have discovered that Truth – amounts to the harsh assertion that some people are right and some people are wrong; that some religions are right and some religions are wrong; that some cultures are right and some cultures are wrong.

Such a position is untenable.

Thus, perhaps, we are plunged into despair. Holding diversity of thought and belief in high esteem means abandoning any pursuit of Truth and relinquishing the reins of reason. There is not one Truth that can be discovered through the scholarly art of reason; rather reason is little more than a mantle to drape around whichever views fit our fancy.

This is the challenge that Nietzsche refers to in On the Genealogy of Morals when he quotes the secret motto of the Order of Assassins: Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

The destruction of Truth, the dispersion of reason – while so very valuable in our pluralist, modern times – muddies the question of what is right and what is wrong. Where do cultural differences end and moral imperatives begin? How do you balance one person’s religious freedom with another’s personal freedom?

Nietzsche sees this an inescapable cycle, arguing that “all great things bring about their own demise through an act of self-sublimation.”

Thus reason must ultimately destroy itself – as reason will reveal that there is no Truth.

“What meaning does our being have, if it were not that that will to truth has become conscious of itself as a problem in us?” Nietzsche writes. “Without a doubt, from now on, morality will be destroyed by the will to truth’s becoming-conscious-of-itself: that great drama in a hundred acts reserved for Europe in the next two centuries, the most terrible, most questionable drama but perhaps also the one most rich in hope…”

“Rich in hope” is not the expression most people would use for this terrible drama. If nothing is true, everything is permitted. Only anarchy and nihilism can follow.

I myself am more drawn to Camus’ take on things. With his dry, French wit he sees the conflict but dismisses it as conflict. Yes, the world is absurd, he reasons. That’s not license to do as you will.

You are free, perhaps, to be a terrible person, but that doesn’t mean you ought to let yourself follow that path. You still need to steer your horses.

This is the message I get from much of Camus’ work: the world is absurd, life is meaningless, and with that freedom some will permit themselves to fulfill the worst of human nature. But we also have a choice to be good. And without any reasoning, without any truth to justify it, that’s the choice we ought to make.

In The Stranger, Meursault is rightfully punished while others’ every-day callousness goes shamefully unchecked. In The Plague, our heroes – faced with the absurd, seemingly certain result of death, continually choose to fight for life. In The Fall, our unnamed, damned narrator wistfully declares, “But let’s not worry! It’s too late now. It will always be too late. Fortunately!

The absurd is no reason to stop fighting for what’s right.

And yet, in much of his writing Camus is indirect with his moral claims; perhaps he finds little ground to judge the morality of others.

So I was struck this morning by the unwavering moral claims Camus’ makes in his 1946 speech “The Human Crisis:”

Yes, there is a human crisis because in today’s world, we can contemplate the death or the torture of a human being with a feeling of indifference, friendly concern, scientific interest, or simple passivity. Yes, there is a human crisis, since putting a person to death can be regarded with something other the horror and scandal it ought to provoke. Since human suffering is accepted as a somewhat boring obligation, on a par with getting supplies or having to stand in line for an ounce of butter.

There is a human crisis, because in a world where nothing is true, we foolishly assume that everything is permitted. We reason away our responsibilities, occasionally decrying perpetrators only to accept bystanders neutral. It’s not our responsibility, it is not our concern.

But Nietzsche is wrong; there is no death of morality and there is no death of truth. We may not always know what’s best, but Camus’ feels it in his bones: we still have an imperative to do what is right.

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