Am I King Midas?

The story of King Midas is a parable of an unwise man given the power to change the world to make it conform to his ideal.

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Winston Churchill never sounded more Marxist than when he said: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

What kind of building should be entrusted with shaping a future architect?

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The strategy of changing our lives, our life experience and our very selves by changing the world around us is somewhere in the vicinity of the heart of leftist thinking.

To the degree one is a leftist (or progressivist), one will see suffering and dissatisfaction as something which comes from without, and which is best remedied through outward action. The world is adjusted to standards set by the self.

To the degree one is a rightist (or conservative), one will see suffering and dissatisfaction as something that is part of the very essence of existence, and which is therefore remedied through inner work. The self is adjusted to standards set by the world.

Of course, the world shapes us into the selves who, in turn, want to shape the world. And the world has been shaped by selves who were, in turn, shaped by the world. So say those of us who want to take responsibility for the standards we adopt, those standards by which we reciprocally, iteratively, shape ourselves and our worlds.

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Every one of us who aspires to change the world has a terrifying question to ask, the the more we need to ask it, the less likely it is to occur to us to ask it: Given the scope, depth and density of my understanding of the world, should I be trusted — should I trust myself? —  with shaping it to my ideal?

Contemplate Wikipedia’s definition of the Dunning-Kruger effect “The Dunning–Kruger effect is a hypothetical cognitive bias stating that people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability.”

Of course, as any good progressivist will tell you, there is no “the world”. Each person inhabits some “lived experience” largely determined by their position within society. So, which parts of the world have shaped us, our desires, our ideals, our standards? Is one of them better suited to the task of re-shaping the world?

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Years ago I went to a design event. We were all given self assessments on our own mastery of various elements of design practice. The young designers right out of school scored much higher than the experienced designers, confirming their suspicion: “Those old designers don’t know any more about design than we young designers do.”

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But, of course, the world can dominate and break us. We can betray ourselves and become  complacent and bitter. We can succumb to resentment of those who have not been broken — those who have not given up hope, who still have the will to fight. And these will look at the young and see the future: “Those young idealists think they will change the world, but reality will catch up with them, and they will end up like the rest of us.”

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Even the smartest expert, even the smartest group of like-minded experts, has knowledge of a tiny, selective speck of reality. It takes diverse minds with a diverse range of expertise to produce an adequate knowledge of human life. And the further we get from the reality we “know” –the lesson-the-ground, hands-on experience we have of what we know — the less problematic our knowledge seems.

To cultivate awareness of the limits of our knowledge, to learn to detect the mind’s own devices for forgetting its finitude by bounding itself within a tidy horizon of relevance and painting over its ignorance and blindness with the concealing paint of nothingness, to know that we do not know not only with our minds, but with our hearts and our bodies, and most of all when we vehemently disagree — these bring us to pluralism.

Pluralism is a modest term for an old honorific that has become preposterous and fallen out of use.

1 thought on “Am I King Midas?

  1. Your post resonates with something I just put into my mindmap:
    “[E]xpecting losses to occur helps us to guard against harmful, deceptive uses of the ideologies with which we live and think. Thomas Nagel said of Berlin’s view of value incompatibilities that they do not “present a profound problem for moral theory, though they may present us with dif?cult choices” (Nagel). I think that is precisely what tragic loss does: it makes it harder to abjure responsibility for the choices we make. In this sense, the best use of pluralism today is neither to bolster liberalism’s claims to superiority nor to discredit Marxist alternatives, but to prevent any political ideology from failing to recognize the implications for human life and human value of the choices that it does make. Pluralism tells us to expect that in the con?ict between incompatible values, there will not always be an answer that can eliminate or compensate for the real costs of choice.”
    ‘Value Pluralism and Tragic Loss’
    Holding the belief that when we change the world to better suit our vision, we are butchering some other vision of the world helps instill in us some humility regarding our efforts. It makes us more attuned to the negative effects of our change.

    Note that even when we decide to NOT change the world, we still butcher some other vision of the world, so whether we choose to change the world or to resist such attempts, we should do so with humility regarding our blindness and compassion to those whose values we butcher.

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