Modern life is incredibly entailed, regardless of the level of adventure we seek. Our world is so complex and busy that it is easy to bypass all the little choices we make and steps we take to fulfill our responsibilities. Due to this complexity, it is much easier to bypass understanding the entailments of our choices and simply act according to the conclusions offered by habit, tradition, or group-think. These three criteria are commonly referred to as obligations because they are exercised via compulsion.
So what is an entailment? Quite simply, an entailment is something that needs to be fulfilled for other things to be fulfilled. Drive a car? Well, you need not just fill it with gas and change the oil, but you need to get a driver's license and insurance, and follow the rules of traffic. Yet, driving is so simple in itself...just turn the key and go. Thus, the process of driving is heavily entailed.
Entailments are not limited to the concrete world though. Our thoughts, beliefs, and relationships are even more entailed than our concrete affairs due to the plethora of alternatives and contingencies implicit within their abstract nature. Evidence of this lies in how you know exactly what driving a car entails. In the abstract world of relationships, passions, and goals, do you ever exactly know what it will entail? No, because you cannot predict the future, nor can you predict exactly how things will naturally mutate and develop. In terms of our relationships, since others have their own convictions, drives, and responsibilities which they have thoughts and feelings about, you cannot claim exactitude over another's life, perspective, or the entailments borne of them.
This is why it is easier nowadays to be a relativist. To be clear, relativism is the relinquishment of judgment based on the assumption that no objective standard can be determined or communicated. The complexity of our modern world facilitates relativism because unless one hone's their mind and emotion through objectivity, things become messy very quickly: We miscategorize things, we misinterpret words and ideals, we mix short-term and long-term goals, we confuse healthy selfishness for unhealthy selfishness, the list goes on. I can observe and feel the social pressure to relativize my own comings-and-goings because the vast majority of our modern world is still subjective, hence only embraces portions of reality they find immediately comfortable and familiar. Yes, understanding the network of entailments of our thoughts, actions and habits can be nebulous and frustrating and discouraging at times, but only because we are at that point unpracticed. Becoming more objective helps clear the water and provides a better look at our entailments.
Understanding, taking control of, and mastering our entailments entails (no pun intended) looking at them from the inside out. I like to think of it as the organic approach because it involves the steps of the process, or the organs of the activity. So in the driving example, instead of defining driving as navigating the road in a vehicle, the organic approach defines it by all the steps involved to allow the act of driving to occur. Does this seem like unnecessary mental gymnastics, or some impractical mantra? If so, that is too bad, because due to the nature of entailment, each of these steps must be fulfilled to legally navigate the vehicle on the road. So prudence suggests we master the organs of the activity so that we may continue the activity adaptively and confidently rather than accidentally and uncertainly.
Changing our mental orientation toward understanding the entailments of our concrete, daily affairs is one of the most significant--if not the most significant--method of improving our ability to function, adapt, and improve the more complex processes of our modern lives. Are those not the activities that we overlook, anyway? If we approach everything as some grand conclusion that needs to be memorized or as an activity that needs to operate predominantly with muscle memory, then there is no way we can stop ourselves and adapt our methods mid-activity. And that is a big deal: Since our modern worlds are so heavily entailed, why would we not want the ability (aka: competence) to stop ourselves mid-activity to adapt the process to a better one? Do you want to be just a helpless tire rolling down a hill? All it takes is practice, practice, practice.
Doing this in our relationships involves a similar process, except instead of simply intellectualizing the steps involved in an external activity, we empathize the dynamic characteristics and perspectives exhibited by another person. To us, people are outside reality as well, except they are more complex than objects because they are thinking/feeling beings, hence moving targets! If we do not pay close enough attention to others, we may find ourselves holding them hostage to their past selves, rather than their present selves. Even if someone is highly principled and therefore fundamentally unchanging, their experience of their mental and emotional world will develop as they grow their experiences, so if we are not attuned to their process and experiences on their terms--rather than the terms we prescribe--we will not be able to forge a strong relationship with their current, dynamic self.
And yes, this is all from the concept of entailment, and our orientation toward it. Civilization and our modern world will not get any less complex, and will certainly become more concrete the more we focus merely on the act part of action rather than the organic steps that produce action. I want to be clear that actions and conclusions will always exist: Every book has a beginning, middle and an end. However, when we organically navigate the networks of our actions and relationships we will be much clearer on how and why things function, what the consequences and repercussions will be, and what is in and out of our power to change. Which is why the worst case scenario is acting out of obligation and not acknowledging our entailments at all.
I was felling trees recently when I was unexpectedly smacked upside the head. No, not by a tree limb, but by a certain quote I have carried with me for a long time: Every creature must kill to survive. I could be mistaken, but I think Richard Dawkins said it in The Selfish Gene.
I was so affected by the quote due to a new-found admiration and respect for nature. I have not always paid attention to my environment, let alone to the natural world. (It is so easy to allow human-created things to occupy our attention, is it not?) Point is, I am like most people and need to actively train and practice to see, feel, and respect nature for what it is, rather than how it can serve me. So when I was felling trees and brought the quote to mind, I started to understand the intimacy of killing on a more guttural level.
Chainsawing responsibly is largely about 1) Keeping your focus on how you make your cuts, 2) The function of what you are cutting, and 3) What you are not cutting. If you are like me, you may not immediately acknowledge how responsible chainsawing is representative of enlightened and objective human engagements, so let us proceed one by one.
Keeping your focus on how you are making the cut, or what techniques you are using, keeps you in the moment and attuned to the unique characteristics of immediate reality. This seems so intuitive because I am talking about a mechanical activity that that could maim or kill you, but staying in the moment is as exclusive to chainsawing as walking is to using a treadmill. Staying in the moment while you are cutting not only makes you safer because you will have a better chance at predicting where the tree will fall, but it allows you to observe and judge yourself in that very moment. It is so easy to just blame the saw for a tree that did not fall where you wanted it to. Plus, many times in life we complain that we cannot see or understand our flaws until after we commit them, so practicing staying in the moment strengthens our ability to view and judge ourselves objectively, enabling us to be more competent and adaptive to unforeseen, undesirable variables. (If it is any argument that can convince the most amount of people to become more objective, it is that objectivity allows one to reasonably predict and prevent unforeseen, undesirable variables.)
Second, we have the function of what we are cutting. Are the limbs and branches just going to get thrown away to rot? If so, why can we not find some kind of use for them? This is a sibling argument of: We are bored because we are boring. If we deconstruct something without at least some kind of working idea for what to do with the deconstructed parts, then it is a strong possibility that we are not searching and thinking hard enough. I am not saying that every little thing we do in life will create recyclable and highly functional byproducts; there is a valid reason the word waste is in our vernacular. But sometimes our byproducts can have wildly effective functions, and all we need to do is open our minds to the myriad possibilities. The whole point is that we do not need to physically engage or get the short-term or long-term benefit of the byproducts we create for them to exist. Thinking such would make us terribly human-centric. Knowing the specific function of what we cut, and the reasoned-out premise why we are doing it will allow us to make cuts in proportion, and not be standing in front of a deforested field at the end of the day asking ourselves, "How did I wind up doing all that?"
Third, if we look at what we are not cutting we can better understand what we are cutting. This is all about categories and judgment: Why this instead of that? How is this different than that? How are these alike? If they are alike, then why did I bypass those trees over there? Intellectually understanding what we are not cutting helps us better understand our overall purview because it makes us think and feel with more breadth, and hold ourselves accountable. Nowadays, it is common to hear Do the Right Thing and Be Respectful as well as many other canned ethical mantras, but when you get down to the nitty gritty, an adaptable, informed morality (and ethics) involves actively comparing and contrasting what you choose to and not to engage, then judging your methods and motivations. Again, it is about understanding the breadth of how, why, and what comprises our attention. Yes, attention is superficial, though what we choose to keep ourselves attended toward are what we find of value. And if we find that the only things that keep our attention are 1) Those that are immediately in front of us, and 2) Those specifically of benefit to us, we are by default users, and will most likely find ourselves standing in front of that deforested field at some point in our lives.
How can I draw general arguments about life from the physical activity of chainsawing? Well, because chainsawing is an excellent microcosm for how we will act if we can immediately produce effects. In other words, in a few minutes we can fell a fifty-year old tree. In a matter of hours we can raze a field. So if we do not keep a clear perspective--both short-term and long-term--then we can affect or even destroy a whole lot, quickly. The question becomes: What is your personal chainsaw-perspective? If you had a tool that could so quickly and efficiently change the physical landscape according to your whim, what would you do? Yes, this question transcends the physical act of chainsawing and applies to our power-orientation with other people and natural objects. If you could change others right now, would you? If so, what would you change? Be honest, then judge yourself, because you cannot change your thoughts, beliefs and methods without candid self-judgment.
This is why the statement Every creature must kill to survive resonated so deeply within me. I knew exactly why we were cutting each tree we were cutting, why we were leaving the ones we were not, and why we were so diligently stacking the wood. We made informed, balanced choices. Plus, our cuts would allow the undergrowth to proliferate, as it had done so quickly after cutting sessions years-past. This undergrowth is never far from our purview, and actually quite often becomes the center of landscaping conversations due to it's impressive proliferation. The same goes with life: The easily bypassed things in our worlds will spring to life if we deliberately and prudently sculpt the things that occupy a more convenient and direct eye-line. We just need to operate with more breadth, or more objectively. (Once again, objective is nowhere close to sharing a meaning with robotic, regardless of how many people think so.)
No matter what course of action we take, if we are to survive, something must die to sustain us. It is up to us to understand and bring into proportion what dies and how extensively the wake of death we leave is, so that we may survive well, as may the nature that brought us into this world.
In response to the titled statement:
Errors are popularly believed to be markers that indicate flights from reality when the subject had the option of choosing with better judgment. The more affective aspect of this concept is the latter half of the clause (when the subject…), because the act of labeling something as an error is predicated upon the socio-moral obligation of ought, or the cause-and-effect concept of should. The only reason we apply critiques like better judgment is because the overarching incentive (or power) structure determined that a different way of thinking would produce a more sound or accurate grouping of effects. In other words, if we drop the thoughts about why we think we make errors, we may be able to understand on a more rudimentary level what it means to produce action, because as I just stated, making errors involves two distinct conceptual steps which traipse around as simple and raw, but are in fact loaded.
What do I mean loaded? Well, conceptual loading is responsible for many miscategorizations because people unknowingly adopt premises they may not believe in--or have reflected upon--simply because those premises are tucked into a clause that is easy to agree with. This is the case with errors. Errors are loaded for many reasons, but mainly because errors only exist after they have been committed. They are ghosts. So in a raw sense, people do not make or produce errors, they get labeled as having erred because the effects they produce did not fall into alignment with the overarching incentive (or power) structure.
This does not mean relativism has a free pass. Relativism still exists. It is just that the concept of error is dependant upon hindsight. If you act on foresight, your actions are simply labeled as actions! This keeps responsibility in the matter (relinquishing relativism) because we can still produce different effects for our actions, should they be demonstrated as more optimal. We just need orient ourselves to forward-thinking, rather than backward-thinking. Just because we came to the conclusion that a different network of effects is optimal does not mean that the original set of effects we bore were in error, it simply means we made a choice.
So how does this effect objective reality? All this talk of reorienting our perspective toward causes and effects is worthless if we do not establish some kind of objective parameters, because those parameters are what help guide us through greater reality. Ironically, the parameters were always there; the network of our thoughts and actions in relation to reality became subjectified when we introduced the concept of error due to those human-specific categorical qualifiers of ought and should, and the backward-thinking process.
I watched a brief video last night of a bear cub stuck on one side of a concrete median on a freeway. It’s mother had already scaled it, and once she realized her cub could not climb it, she reached back over and grabbed it’s nape with her teeth and pulled it over. Did the mother err in not carrying the median over in the first place? No. Reality just imposed itself on her—as will happen, it is reality after all—and once she observed the immediate restriction, she solved the problem. The same goes with people, but instead of seeing limitations in how greater reality effects us, we label our actions as in error, as if we should have known better, like we are some great Gatekeeper. Hence, errors are not made, errors are labels attached to the back of our shoes as we walk through life to keep the overarching incentive (or power) structures in place.
I am not going to say that all causes produce equal effects, as if this discussion advocates conceptual communism. I will say that all causes produce effects which can be understood and further adapted (optimized). Just like the mother bear who adapted to the immediate restrictions of her situation, we can adapt to the perceived restrictions (because we have a reflective imagination) of our situations and choose differently if it suits us. But since our cause and effect network is so rich and diverse and constantly changing, it seems utter nonsense of restrict ourselves to error labels. This is where objectivity becomes pertinent; the more objective one is, the more they can acknowledge and adapt to greater reality and the panoply of causes and effects, producing more informed and adaptive actions, rather than the subjective person’s very final and definitive error label.
Something happened yesterday which struck me like a blow to the head. A spooked bear ran by the back of my apartment complex, then up through the abutting woods. I heard its aggressive grunts and loud footfalls through a wide-open back door. I was surprised and impressed because I had not seen or heard a bear up to that point. I walked outside to watch it in the woods. By that time it was about fifty feet in, back to walking slowly and minding it's business.
My next door neighbors wedged themselves in their back doorway, refusing to come out. They told me it could attack me/us/anything it came across. They also told me that it made a mess of their bird feeder the day before. They kept telling me that it could attack me. I dismissed them and for a few minutes watched it saunter through the woods. When I finally went inside I heard other neighbors having a safety talk in the front of the complex. They each admitted in some way that they loved rural Connecticut but being that close to bears was not kosher.
Bears are indeed powerful creatures, and next to humans are the apex predator in this area. But this matter has very little to do with bears. Or nature in any sense.
It has to do with how we perceive, judge, and interact with our environment. The folks in my complex clearly like trees and the sound of birds, but apparently disapprove of larger natural things like coyote and bear. I find the line they drew in the sand very suspect because it shows that they do not take nature on its terms and appreciate it in itself, yet operate on confirmation bias. In other words, they make their experience with nature all about human-pleasure and affirmation.
Just saying human-pleasure bothers me. Makes me think of Nazi medical experimentation on Jews, and the horrors of the Colloseum. Yes, those are extremes, but look at the principle: The criteria for operation what was most pleasurable for the humans in power. My neighbors demonstrated that their power is in their ability to separate themselves from the harshness of the natural environment. Why do you think they stayed in the doorway and barked safety concerns at me as I stood outside?
I find it telling that when humans impede upon each other in the way that we impede upon nature, we immediately voice complaints of being violated and oppressed. We can raze forests, build dams to decimate salmon populations, and build huge coal-breathing ocean vessels that destroys whales' ability to use sonar appropriately. But when nature comes too close to us without our permission, we throw a fit and and profess some kind of civil violation.
Here is the interesting & scary part: When we impede upon nature, nature does not respond as we do, yet adapts if it can. Problematically, human-centric humans interpret this as condonement because (circularly) the standard for determining and judging bad behavior is created by what those very humans determined as pleasurable or self-affirmative. Do you see the problem? If you tailor the standards of judgment to reflect what you want, then you become inherently self-centered--arguably, narcissistic--because everything that is not you (nature!) becomes marginalized and transgressed because it does not follow your self-satisfying modus! This is why this is more than about bear; it represents a circular ethical purview.
Granted, nature does not speak our human language, but as the philosopher Parker Kristhoffer pointed out to me recently, why is it we cannot understand it's language? When we talk to dogs they know what we are saying. They read our gestures, tone, and words. However, we humans in all our glory still cannot interpret a conversation between two dogs. Is it because civilization has taught us not to listen? Maybe. I just know we have trouble hearing the non-human world, even though we assert we are the most intelligent species. Thus, it is plausible our human-centric egos self-create boundaries of empathy.
Distinguishing boundaries and constructing categories for our behavior is natural because it is one of the most basic forms of judgement we humans perform. My problem with circular ethical purviews is that we take our compulsion to draw boundaries and mutate it into enabling ourselves to be destructive to things that do not fall in our purview; i.e. bears, coyotes, etc. Circular ethical purviews are thus mutually exclusive with enlightened, objective perspectives, because the latter is not all about us.
A circular ethical purview is clear when one builds assumptions into their perceptions and interpretations. Is that not why we build assumptions in, in the first place? To affirm ourselves? If we were not interested in affirming ourselves than we would allow the environment to present itself more fully, and in the example of the bear that ran through my backyard, would have caused my neighbors to interpret the event much more rationally than banding together to talk about how bears could kill us. (As if bears just hang around and plot how to kill humans...)
Let me be clear: Humans are much more dangerous than bears because we have the ability (and apparent craving) for malice. Natural animals only attack when cornered, when you threaten their young, or in extreme instances--and if they have the wherewithal--when hungry.
I find it sad and ironic that human-centric boundaries (safety, power, money, etc.) cause humans to cripple at the sight and presence of one of our natural siblings whom do not operate according to those boundaries. Bears are our brothers, our sisters, etc., they do not want to kill us. The only creature on earth with the capacity for that desire is the human.
Modern racism is very adaptive and clandestine, and contrary to popular thought is not being obliterated, for the same reason many strains of bacteria have become resistant to standard antibiotics. Modern culture embarked down a path of enlightenment with human rights but since that path still allowed a racism tributary--because enlightenment allows alternatives and does not bully--resistant racism fought for its survival and slowly became more privatized.
Racism used to be more openly professed due to its nationalistic roots. Nationalism originally professed pride and dignity across hereditary us-groups, so openly claiming racist arguments was supported by many scientists and social thinkers. Now the very science that "proved" scientific racism has disproved it many times over--as has philosophy--but that just means the modern racist defers to personal belief rather than public "fact." This move was key.
What I see happening in modern culture is this: Public racism is scorned, and private racism is condoned using some false argument like personal liberty.
It is this all-too-common scenario that brings the privatization of racism into my mind: Multiple people are talking, griping about how they could not believe so-and-so was making open racist comments. Read that sentence again because it says a lot: They were griping about how so-and-so made open racist comments. Apparently they were less bothered by the existence of the racist ideals than they were about how they were expressed openly in a public sphere. I have heard this more than once and wonder if anyone understands what the complaint really means. This is what I mean by the privatization of racism; it has now become more deplorable to say racist things publicly than to think them privately.
When cultures focus on community, tradition, government, religion, and other inherently collective ideals, they pave a path for where the people's moral and ethical attention will be pulled. What was great about Thoreau was that he knew he was not autonomous or that his respite was permanent, but that he needed a break from the world to be able to see it clearly and write about it. His solution is still available and practical to us, however in modern times that premise is met with absurd and scornful responses as people do not understand the value (or the feasibility) of getting away from the society that gives form to their economics, futures, and organizations. (No, that is not what your vacation is about. Thoreau was not on a vacation.) I am not saying we all need to live like Hobos, but I am saying that Thoreau saw how public values infiltrated private values, and disapproved of it.
Racism of course is not unique in its progressive privatization. Many socially uncomfortable topics are left to the annals of a safe "us" group to talk about them, but I find this destructive on a large scale. But how, you may ask, when we are not actively or directly insulting the objectified group? Ah, I get it. So choosing to be secretive about racism (or any -ism) is a more practical and humane solution. Did not know conspiring was a virtue.
It may sound like I am proposing an honesty-program, where those with racist thoughts walk up to the objectified group and "respect" them through telling them to their face. That telling them they are sub-human is a sign of respect... No, what I am asking is that each of us just look in the mirror and talk to the person looking back as if they are the objectified group. Tape a note to the mirror if you need a script for each group. This directly attacks the privatization of racism through making us see ourselves for what we truly believe, because one of the big reasons we separate private beliefs/actions from public beliefs/actions is because we convince ourselves that the public version of ourselves is just as valid. This compartmentalization is merely another form of confirmation bias.
If we want to see our ugliness, then looking at how we are/may be confirmation biased is a great start. The problem is that implicit within confirmation bias is a lack of entering conflict and self-reflection; we just non-confrontationally confirm our biases then move on. There is no self-reflection or judgment, just self-movement. This is why the privatization of our racism goes undetected. To break that cycle, we do not need to be open with the objects with our racism, yet open with ourselves about what we truly believe. Only then will there we no difference between our private self and public self.
The whole incentive for privatizing racism is to maintain comfortable, unfounded, and phobic thoughts. Unfortunately, we cannot observe, judge, or reconcile these thoughts when we dilute ourselves with platitudes, cliche's, and social niceties, which is why they are some of the primary tools of privatized (modern) racism. This is also why a modern racist can passionately claim that racism has no place in the public sphere.
I know as well as anyone that labels can be slippery slopes: I am a writer, you are Chinese, she is a bank teller, he is a football player. Let us face it, labeling can lead us into murky water if we do not understand why and how we are labeling in the first place. The good news is that labeling is not a unique activity; it is actually extension of what we do on a daily basis because it is part of our nature. In short, a label is simply an extension of our natural inclination to judge and categorize.
I have heard it numerous times: you are being judgey; you cannot judge until you walk in someone else's shoes; people do not think the same so you cannot apply universal principles to them. All these are overreactions to misunderstanding what, as base, judgement is. Did you make coffee this morning or tea? Whichever you chose, well, you judged that. Did you brush your teeth this morning? If you did, it is because you judged oral health more desirable than oral unhealth. See where I am going with this? Our inclination as humans to judge is inevitable and unavoidable, which is why I argue that we ought to drop the relativistic overreactions and practice doing it well.
But judgment is not that simple and convenient, you may say. People's feelings and unique life experiences are involved. I understand, and would never homogenize the realm of human experience, thinkings, and feelings. What I am saying is that judgement is what allows us to make a decision between options. Let us keep it simple; we have beaten up this inclination enough.
Let us talk about labels again. Blacks are often labeled as lascivious, whites as easily corruptible to power, Spanish as thieves, the list goes on. We judged that. How? Because confirmation bias was practiced instead of objective judgment. Think just because judgement is natural that we cannot practice it? Wrong. We can hone it. And it certainly helps ourselves and the rest of the natural world if we do hone it. Look at atrocities like Holy Wars, the Holocaust, and any hate crime. These are perversions of judgment because the person(s) judging did not apply their intellect to objectively expose the tenets of their own thoughts and beliefs. When thinking about categories and judgments and such, its so easy and convenient to think about what we are judging as if that ought to be our primary focus. I say no. I say we ought to grill ourselves as to whether our ability to judge is mature and honed, not even thinking about outward stimuli.
When we think about outward stimuli before we hone our ability to objectively and reasonably judge, catastrophes are pretty much inevitable. We then make statements like : I was raised suspicious of [insert group], or, that's just what I was taught, or, If so many people think/feel like I do, then I must be right. I cannot tell you how often I hear these awful, destructive arguments, and what makes them awful and destructive is that tucked within them is an unwillingness to clean up the inherited judgments (aka: beliefs), or even look at them and judge them with a fresh set of eyes! This is partly why America is judgment-phobic; we believe toxic judgments are a sample that fully represents all judgments. That is just not true.
Judgments, categories, and labels are intimately related. Yes, this is a complex issue due to its abstract and moral/ethical nature. (Add fear to that; revealing and judging ourselves is scary at times). However, I am going to simplify it.
If we ask ourselves, What judgments have I inherited?, we encourage a conversation and exploration within ourselves, which is a lot better position to be in than simply expressing/imposing them upon others. What can be the harm of a self-exploration, anyway?
Years ago I judged that I was a good writer, but when asked why by another, I was forced to reevaluate the meaning of the word good. And writer. Had I established healthy, productive literary practices? No, I just assumed I had them because writing came relatively easy because I am a natural writer. So the investigation allowed me to see my flaws and fix them, rather than remain stagnant and in self-deception. This is one of the main reasons for developing objective judgment; it allows us to explore and view reality for what it is, rather than what we want it it be, no matter what we were told (indoctrinated) in our upbringing. Honing our ability to judge allows us to mature intellectually, and since that allows us to be more honest about ourselves, it allows us to develop emotionally.
All this from labels, judgments, and categories. We judge as a matter of species-necessity. Being judgey is thus a human obligation. Deal with it. Badmouthing it is like badmouthing locomotion, or food and water. Our lives are flooded with conflicting options: move left not right, front not back, eat this not that, work at this place not that, don't work at either, love this way not that way, hate this way not that way, befriend this person not that person. We are inundated with conflicting options and as sentient beings we choose among them as a matter of course. So why not clean up our course? Do we not care to?
I am not denying that poor (abusive, destructive, exploitative) judgments exist, or that labels can restrict who and what you want to be. I constantly tell myself that I am more than a writer. That there is much more to me than reading and writing, despite it being my primary focus. But labels properly made (through an open exploration of values, judgments and beliefs) can help us take ownership and responsibility of our lives. A refusal to label who and what we are is a form of apathy. It is merely saying that we would rather avoid revealing ourselves than improve ourselves. Ironically, judging that I mis-labeled myself a good writer years ago allowed me become a much better writer. So as fixed as we think our labels are, if we approach them with an adaptive fluidity, encouraging and embracing judgment along the way, then we will see our inner world and outer world (remember the previous statements about blacks, whites, and Spanish?) more fully, rather than what confirms our inherited judgments.
Popular question: Why do people have to be assholes?
Already the discourse is wanting due to the term's ambiguity, as well as from preconceived notions about the term. I cannot dismiss that the word is loaded, however, I can critique how exactly it is loaded. And if you think the word is not loaded, that the meaning of asshole is blatantly obvious therefore unnecessary to investigate, then I challenge you to briefly suspend your assessment long enough to permit another perspective. After all, challenging "obvious" perspectives has been the basis of most technological, social, and philosophical enlightenment, so there is only something to gain from hearing how the meaning of the term asshole may be different than popularly attributed.
To keep this simple, this whole conversation pertains to a competition between an us group and a them group. More specifically, the us group are those who abide by society's conventional standards and customs, and the them group (assholes) are those who abide by their own set of rules, customs, and standards.
Since not all humans want to conform (some outright cannot) to social standards and customs, never will 100% of the human population abide by them. Not everyone finds solace in a herd; this is a lost truth. What this shows is that assholes are not aberrations, yet thinking, feeling people in their own right. That they are part of the natural human order. It is the next part of the discourse where the topic becomes hotly debated, though.
Is there virtue in being an asshole?
First off, assholes are not the only types of people whom do not conform well to social standards and customs. There are many different types, and it is here I will briefly call upon geeks and nerds for the purpose of giving context to this discussion of anti-sociality. Geeks and nerds do not fit in well because they lack social tact and often develop obsessions for vocations that are slightly off (or wholly off) from what are deemed socially valuable or productive. Further, geeks and nerds are passive, both in nature and practice. This is why it is easy to marginalize them, though also why it can be extremely effective to vet them for socially productive activities, so long as they are fed the right incentive. Since they are passive, they can more easily be corralled, indoctrinated, and directed as if they are some wind-up toy. I am not insulting or denigrating them. It is just that due to their passive nature, geeks and nerds often have trouble standing up to existent power structures, because their primary concern is manipulating and ascending technical or methodical systems, not manipulating and ascending social systems or structures.
This brings assholes back into the picture. Assholes are distant cousins of geeks and nerds because they are off-center, though are active. They see and openly communicate the discrepancy between themselves and the socially imposed standards and customs. Due to their inclination to be active rather than passive, assholes cannot easily be pushed around, unlike geeks and nerds.
I know what you may be thinking. "Assholes are just bullies." Well, no. Bullies are power-based. They sniff out weakness and move toward it to either obtain some kind of resource as easily as possible, or use what they overpower as yet another coffer to hide their own inadequacies. Assholes do not prey upon weakness because they are more focused and centered upon operating according to their own core thoughts, values, and beliefs, rather than against the us-based social group. Assholes are not rebels, they are merely people who are willing to stand toe-to-toe with convention if the convention impedes or imposes upon them.
Does this make assholes right all the time? Not even close. If it is one premise I want to be abundantly, ridiculously, redundantly clear on it is that just because one is an asshole, does not make them a truth-teller. It simply means they will venture to have their own thoughts and boldly present them to the world, without the requisite approval of the social body in power. Assholes thus can have tremendous social value, not only because they strive for indigenous thoughts, but if they are wrong they have the fortitude to admit it. For this reason, they are not anarchists. (Talk about teachers of humility.) Remember, assholes do not require social approval, so admitting to the social body when they are wrong is not a problem. Society's approval is not required in the first place!
It may sound odd, but living like an asshole is actually a practice of determining and strengthening one's character. It is not an adventure in seeing how many waves one can create (that would be a bully), but is a lifestyle calibrated upon the self. For this reason, assholes become labelled assholes as a byproduct of the effects they genuinely cause. Bullies, on the other hand, deliberately choose to be bullies because they seek power over others. An asshole is simply an orientation to command one's life according to what they are bold enough to discover and communicate as an individual. Facing their own faults. This causes a social rub because they do not defer to social power mechanisms or traditions.
Is a society of assholes possible? That is a different discussion, but a worthy one to have, considering it sheds light on how modern us-groups (civilized societies) have a particular distaste for raw individuality, conflict, and strength of character.
What really gets under my skin are cotton-candy--or feel-good--maxims which hide their vagueness and ambiguity in social rhetoric. For example: "Be a teacher, they are the most important people in the world." Or, "Do the right thing." Or, "Love is all you need." Some of these become cliche's because they are so cheap and easy and non-reflective (which takes effort and risk). Anyone can preach them and know they are not going to offend anyone. But does that make the statements accurate or justifiable? I argue no. I think that any cotton-candy maxim needs to be looked at with a microscope because their lack of harshness allows their vagueness and ambiguity to go unnoticed. And that is very damaging.
Ever notice how socially unpopular statements are harshly scrutinized? We go over them with a fine-tooth comb, searching for fallacies and discrepancies, looking to dismantle them any way possible. Yet, if someone talk about something cotton-candyish like love, friendship, teaching, believing, god, or family, we give them a pass. I am for equal treatment of our premises. Let us look at one I just read.
"Teachers are the most admirable and important people in the world. Please please please be a teacher, even if only for a short time." Is that really advice or a poison? First off, not everyone is cut out to be a teacher. Some are indeed natural teachers, while others learn how to be teachers through developing the tools necessary. Then there are others who simply do not want to teach others. Some people may indeed be excellent communicators, being very productive and reflective, but just lack the tools or the will to teach others.
Second, not all teachers are actually good at teaching, want to teach for anything but a paycheck, or are that smart. I have taken many classes where each of these (or all of these) are true. Being a teacher can be a powerful thing, however stating that they are the most important people in the world is simply pandering to social niceties. Plus it glosses over how many teachers molest students. Please, let us not gloss over this frightening epidemic.
I will tell you who I think the most important and significant people in the world are: Individuals in the past. What? Why? How??
Well one, we can learn from them. From their accomplishments and failures. They are the ones who linked their own past to us, and since history is a rich, web-like network and not a linear chain, it inherently has breadth and significance. Both choice and non-choice are essentially choices, and--for the latter--a lack of a choice is still a choice. The individuals in our history have much to teach us in how they chose to act, believe and think, as well as how they choose to ignore, diffuse and reject. That seems to describe "significant" pretty well.
Despite this, our history does not limit or constrict us, it informs us, and thus has the capability to empower us. History is happening all the time, we just believe it is only that which appears in textbooks. Look around you, history is happening all the time.
History is one minute ago.
History is five minutes ago.
History was that choice you made yesterday to get involved when you should not have. Or should have.
Intellectually reflecting upon the network of individuals and actions that led to this present moment is extremely significant because we did not wake up today to a brand new world. We both earned and inherited this world, this culture, this value-set shoved down our throats. They are the most significant people. They precipitated change whether or not they knew it, just as we are doing at this very moment, which will be history tomorrow.
Let us be responsible with our choices, as well as our points of view. Saying what is popular and emotionally pleasing is vague and ambiguous in a time when precision and clarity are very much needed.
I just came across the story of the 12 year-old Australian girl who briefly united the digital world. By losing her teddy bear. The following is a clip from The Sunday Telegraph article:
"'It has been so traumatic,' Mrs Malcolm [girl's mother] told The Sunday Telegraph.
'We had been in London for a month on a family holiday and I put Teddy in the bag and locked it up so we wouldn't lose her - but Jess didn't want to go the 24 hours without her, so we took her out again and brought her on the plane.'
Jessica's grandmother had a teddy bear shop and gave her Teddy when she was born, and she has slept with her every single day since.
'If you know Jess, you know that Teddy is part of her life.'"
I understand the significance of artifacts in our lives, as well as how coming to another's aid can build relationships and teach valuable life lessons. I am not the best with seeing life lessons, but even I sees red flags all over the place.
The fact that she is twelve and in severe emotional distress at this "loss" is disturbing, however, that is an issue that she (and her enabling family) will deal with on an individual and micro-communal level, so it is not really pressing nor the business of the rest of the world. My problem was with how immediately and with such severity the world rallied.
What is the big deal, you may ask? Excellent question. Effort and time are finite resources. If used in one place, they cannot be used in another. If more and more of these stories become glorified as "restoring faith in humanity," then our ethical compass will become reinforced toward those types of solutions, rather than toward saving whales from military sonar experiments, preventing mines from being built which will destroy nature, preventing the earth's water supply from being poisoned, or protecting feminists from malice. (Regarding this last issue, it was just brought to my attention that activist and feminist Lierre Keith has been verbally and sexually threatened in anticipation of a talk she is about to give in Oregon.)
What I view as really scary is how the girl's mother said the digital world's rescue effort "restored her faith in humanity." Even Russell Crowe became involved! Her child did not have terminal cancer, was not trapped in the bottom of a well, was not taken hostage by terrorists, was not raped and left for dead; she lost her teddy bear due to her own negligence. The girl could have left the toy in the luggage as her mother suggested, but she "could not be without it." When it was lost, it was a great opportunity for real-world consequences but the rest of the world played the part of the great enabler and rallied to return it.
Helping one another in a time of need is a virtue, so long as we think before we do it, and think as we do it. If we help each other based on emotional impulse, then not only will we be global enablers, but we will be resetting our ethical compass away from actual, substantive problems like destruction of nature and human rights, rather than the historically-irrelevant loss of a 12-year old's security blanket.
Selfishness gets a bad rap.
Socrates argued that whatever you choose to do, you did so because on some level you decided it was the best option for that moment. Even options that seem bad for you were the best at the moment, because they fulfilled your want or need to do something bad. This may seem cheap, even tautological, but what it really says is that everything--from our brightest moments down to our dullest--is an unavoidable manifestation of our self-ness.
Popular psychology has pretty much worn conversations of self down to the bone, which is problematic because it over-emphasizes the significance of past experiences. Sure, the past builds who we are, but just because you know someone's past doesn't mean you know their future. Thus, the past does not necessarily restrict the future. So I am going to simplify the definition of self to "awareness of a unique capacity for proactive reflection and reactive reflection." Sounds odd, however the concept of self is more than just your memories and your aspirations. It is your identity that is developed through engaging the present moment, whether or not you proactively initiate the engagement, or an outside stimuli does. Thus, when dealing with self-ness it is important to keep in mind that we are talking about more than just a name tag on a chest, but the phenomena of one's being. It is both your permanence and your changeability. This is significant because Socrates' argument is based on our every action representing a choice directly derived from our self, whether or not we are conscious of it. Our selves are thus revealed all the time, not just in moments where we subjectively believe they are revealed.
The act of developing and feeding this self can accurately be described as selfish, however it is a concept that is wildly misunderstood because it has acquired a toxic social mutation. It has lost its neutrality, and when it is spoken in public arenas it is assumed to be a bad thing. I remember trying to make an argument years ago how selfishness could be a good thing, but my poor communication skills combined with their snap judgment of selfishness rendered any argumentative validity moot. Still, selfishness, even from a biological standpoint, means nothing more than doing something to increase your welfare (well-being), either actively or passively at the cost of others. Before you say it is negative due to the "cost of the others", think of our actions as function of the limited resources of time, and commodities. Since we only have so much time in our lives, and there are a finite amount of commodities, it is impossible to do things--at least on a net-gain level--to increase everyone's welfare all the time. Competition is natural. So if I choose to do something today that is going to help me reach my goals, which somehow makes it harder for you to reach your goals, it does not necessarily mean I am a bad person, nor that you cannot reach your goals, just that we are competing over similar things. My selfishness may not be aimed at lowering your welfare, but instead at increasing mine, creating a hard-knocks scenario. Thus, when we affect others' welfare in costly ways, it does not necessarily mean every selfish act is detrimental or wicked. It may just mean that reality is challenging, and life sucks sometimes.
Thus, questions of whether or not we are inherently selfish are valid but extremely limiting, because they infer the premise that selfishness is inherently wicked. The term is definitely biased, because if you turn the scenario on its head you will find no one inquiring whether we are naturally unselfish or altruistic. I suspect there is a religious root to selfishness's stigma since Western religions--especially Christianity--are cynical and suspicious of man's ability to think and judge for himself without the guidance of a higher power. There may be other contributing factors to selfishness' toxic mutation, but it has been packaged as a hoarding, wicked concept, regardless of whether the accumulation of resources is good or bad for the self or others.
Since we have a self, and engage the present moment, we can't avoid being selfish. This is just another way of stating Socrates' argument. Our self-ness determines our self-ishness because it manifests our will. As you know, our wills can manifest in a myriad ways, creating an unlimited amount of combinations of costs and rewards, so selfishness is too vague of a criteria to use for moral and ethical evaluation. This tells us that we can be just as proportionately or disproportionately selfish as we can be unselfish. It is just that altruism and charity are heavily marketed Christian ideals, so the snap judgement made about them is that they are inherently good for everyone involved, despite the common knowledge that enabling is harmful.
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