Category Archives: Politics

Euracism

What so many progressivists seem to miss is that categorical reductions — seeing individuals as examples of categories — is dehumanizing, whether that reduction is judged negatively or positively. It is not the value judgment that is the problem; it is the primacy of the general category over the particularity of the real person.

It is a refusal to transcend ones own mind and its contents, in order to experience the particular, unique, surprising qualities of the person: their personhood.

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I am doing to start talking about racism in terms of disracism and euracism. Similarly, sexism can be divided into dissexism and eusexism.

I need a general term for this entire tendency to stop at the category and to react to a person only as a type. Typism? Eutypism, distypism?

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An example of euracism: Yascha Mounk left Germany because Germans were forever falling over themselves to affirm him as a Jew, and this made him realize he would never be just a person, a German among Germans. He came to America to escape this.

Euracism is not “antiracism” at all. It is a racism that merely reverses judgment, while continuing to exempt itself from encountering the personhood of the person.

Genuine antiracism is just as opposed to euracism as disracism.

Genuine antiracism is pro-person.

Genuine antiracism is liberalism.

Normal and abnormal ethics

Where a community is homogeneous, everyone in the community shares a common worldview and “speaks the same language’. In such communities ideas tend to be readily understood by all members and proposals are commensurable enough that they can be compared and debated without preliminary understanding work.

Where a community is heterogeneous, however, multiple worldviews overlap and, at points, clash in incommensurability.

These regions of incommensurability have been studied and described, most famously by Thomas Kuhn. His accounts were objective and behavioral, viewed from an outside perspective: A crisis occurs in a community. The parties in the conflict understand the world according to different paradigms and not only think differently, but also perceive phenomena differently and talk differently. They talk past each other, and communication breaks down. What Kuhn called “normal science” can no longer be counted on to resolve the crisis. Much is at stake: reputation, resources, interests, so the conflict intensifies and as things get personal, people misbehave. But eventually, one of the paradigms prevails and there is a revolution. A paradigm shift has occurred.

Kuhn’s insights were themselves revolutionary. In his domain of interest, history of science, it caused many people to re-understand science in a less linear way. Progress is less straightforward (literally!) than we thought, and this, for many, weakened the mid-century’s popular faith in science as a guarantee of permanent, steady social progress. And it also loosened the grip of scientific positivism — that conceit that scientific knowledge is ultimate knowledge, and that other ways of knowing only approximate the knowledge of science. This make Kuhn’s insights highly abusable, and these abuses probably account for most of Kuhn’s popularity. (It certainly accounts for Kuhn’s popularity with me.) Vice always trumps virtue in the marketplace of ideas. Vice sells.

One of the finest abusers of Kuhn’s theories was another beloved hero of mine, Richard Rorty. Rorty expanded Kuhn’s framework to interactions outside the scientific community, to the broader academic community, especially those in the community who engage in philosophical discourse. Most notably, Rorty observed that philosophers, too, had crises, and in crises engaged in “abnormal discourse” a mode of discussion quite different from the “normal discourse” to which most of us are accustomed.

A place where I’d like to explore further, which I think needs to be more fully developed, is the experience of crisis — especially everyday crisis — where ordinary people find themselves encountering incommensurable worldviews and must learn to navigate them. What is is it like to participate in such a crisis? To experience the crisis firsthand from within it, which means to be a partisan on one side of the struggle?

Most importantly, what are the ethics of situations where the only possible discourse is abnormal discourse? We are quite used to normal ethics, where right and wrong is a mostly settled issue, and the core issue is resolve to do the right thing. But do any of us really know how to navigate abnormal ethics? Don’t most of us “double-down” on our principles in these situations? Don’t most of us feel that our morals resolve is being put to the test, and now is the time to stand on principle? Is that the right response in an abnormal ethical situation?

And what are the challenges to skillful navigation of abnormal ethical situations? As a design researcher and strategist my entire life is spent in abnormal discourse, do I have quite a stock of primary experience. These range from suspiciously intense disagreement, to apprehension of other people’s conceptions, to full disorientation and perplexity where problematic situations cannot even be framed as problems, questions cannot be asked, and participants in the situation are gripped in the existential anxiety.

Abnormal ethical situations induce existential crisis.

I believe very few of us are equipped to recognize such situations, nor to conceptualize them, nor speak about them, much less navigate them skillfully. So we suffer not only the perplexity itself, but perplexity about what is happening to us.

In my own experience, at least being able to diagnose the terrible feelings as perplexity reduces the pain considerably, and makes the suffering bearable. Being able to agree with others that the group is in perplexity reduces it enough that the suffering disappears and the remaining pain becomes an interesting discomfort, almost a stimulant.

Finally, knowing what can be gained by traversing perplexity — both radical innovation and deeper personal relationships — provides a genuine this-worldly reward for good-faith struggle through everyday crises.

This is all stuff I’ve been obsessed with and written about extensively over the last couple of decades.

What is new here is 1) adopting an “abnormal ethics” redescription, 2) understanding that one consequence of this strange social change where “we all live on campus now” is that abnormal discourse has escaped the lab of academia and is now rampant everywhere, which means paradoxically that abnormal discourse is now normal, and 3) recognizing that, consequently, abnormal ethics might be on the way of becoming the norm. To be ethical in these new conditions might require “leveling up” and becoming good at both normal and abnormal ethics, and know how to mode-switch appropriately. Similarly we might need to do an ethical meta-leap with the electrum rule (my combo golden and silver rule) and ask ourselves not only “is this fair?”, but also “is my standard of fairness imposed fairly?” “Is this just?” must also be meta-interrogated with the question “Is my justice just, and is it imposed justly?” And we must look for prejudices in where we see prejudice (or where we see good or permissible prejudices against some identities and where we see unacceptable, oppressive prejudices) and the logic by which we justify prejudices.

The biggest prejudice of all we will need to overcome is our conceptions of empathy — that understand people is primarily a matter of feeling, caring, valuing. These things are important, but they are part of something bigger and more influential, that basic set of conceptions we use to make sense of the world even before we emotionally respond to it. We need to activate not only our hearts, but also out minds and probably our hands and feet, and all our senses if we want to form better understandings of one another and the world we share.

The good news is that we may have been accidentally preparing the last couple of generations for this by teaching them design thinking. Design practice truly does equip people for abnormal ethics– if they have the wisdom to use their design thought for thinking politics, and to set aside the political indoctrinations they also received.

Seems like there’s something here to work with.

The politics of personal lives

Another excerpt from Sebastian Haffner’s, Defying Hitler, explains why a first-person account of what it was like to be an ordinary person during a moment in history is valuable, and perhaps more valuable than the usual third-person epic historical survey:

What is history, and where does it take place?

If you read ordinary history books — which, it is often overlooked, contain only the scheme of events, not the events themselves — you get the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved, who happen to be “at the helm of the ship of state” and whose deeds and decisions form what is called history. According to this view, the history of the present decade is a kind of chess game among Hitler, Mussolini, Chiang Kai-shek, Roosevelt, Chamberlain, Daladier, and a number of other men whose names are on everybody’s lips. We anonymous others seem at best to be the objects of history, pawns in the chess game, who may be pushed forward or left standing, sacrificed or captured, but whose lives, for what they are worth, take place in a totally different world, unrelated to what is happening on the chessboard, of which they are quite unaware.

It may seem a paradox, but it is nonetheless the simple truth, to say that on the contrary, the decisive historical events take place among us, the anonymous masses. The most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large. It is characteristic of these decisions that they do not manifest themselves as mass movements or demonstrations. Mass assemblies are quite incapable of independent action. Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of the individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals.

This is not an airy, abstract historical construction, but indisputably real and tangible. For instance, what was it that caused Germany to lose the Great War in 1918 and the Allies to win it? An advance in the leadership skills of Foch and Haig, or a decline in Ludendorff’s? Not at all. It was the fact that the “German soldier,” that is, the majority of an anonymous mass of 10 million individuals, was no longer willing, as he had been until then, to risk his life in any attack, or to hold his position to the last man. Where did this change of attitude take place? Certainly not in large, mutinous assemblies of German soldiers, but unnoticed and unchecked in each individual soldier’s breast. Most of them would probably not have been able to describe this complicated and historically important internal process and would merely have used the single expletive “Shit!” If you had interviewed the more articulate soldiers, you would have found a whole skein of random, private (and probably uninteresting and unimportant) reasons, feelings, and experiences, a combination of letters from home, relations with the sergeant, opinions about the quality of the food, and thoughts on the prospects and meaning of the war and (since every German is something of a philosopher) about the meaning and value of life. It is not my purpose here to analyze the inner process that brought the Great War to an end, but it would be interesting for those who wish to reconstruct this event, or others like it, to do so.

Mine is a different topic, although the mental processes it involves are similar. They may perhaps be of greater consequence, interest, and importance: namely, the psychological developments, reactions, and changes that took place simultaneously in the mass of the German population, which made Hitler’s Third Reich possible and today form its unseen basis.

There is an unsolved riddle in the history of the creation of the Third Reich. I think it is much more interesting than the question of who set fire to the Reichstag. It is the question “What became of the Germans?” Even on March 5, 1933, a majority of them voted against Hitler. What happened to that majority? Did they die? Did they disappear from the face of the earth? Did they become Nazis at this late stage? How was it possible that there was not the slightest visible reaction from them?

Most of my readers will have met one or more Germans in the past, and most of them will have looked on their German acquaintances as normal, friendly, civilized people like anyone else — apart from the usual national idiosyncrasies. When they hear the speeches coming from Germany today (and become aware of the foulness of the deeds emanating from there), most of these people will think of their acquaintances and be aghast. They will ask, “What’s wrong with them? Don’t they see what’s happening to them — and what is happening in their name? Do they approve of it? What kind of people are they? What are we to think of them?”

Indeed, behind these questions there are some very peculiar, very revealing mental processes and experiences, whose historical significance cannot yet be fully gauged. These are what I want to write about. You cannot come to grips with them if you do not track them down to the place where they happen: the private lives, emotions, and thoughts of individual Germans. They happen there all the more since, having cleared the sphere of politics of all opposition, the conquering, ravenous state has moved into formerly private spaces in order to clear these, too, of any resistance or recalcitrance and to subjugate the individual. There, in private, the fight is taking place in Germany. You will search for it in vain in the political landscape, even with the most powerful telescope. Today the political struggle is expressed by the choice of what a person eats and drinks, whom he loves, what he does in his spare time, whose company he seeks, whether he smiles or frowns, what he reads, what pictures he hangs on his walls. It is here that the battles of the next world war are being decided in advance. That may sound grotesque, but it is the truth.

That is why I think that by telling my seemingly private, insignificant story I am writing real history, perhaps even the history of the future. It actually makes me happy that in my own person I do not have a particularly important, outstanding subject to describe. If I were more important I would be less typical. That is also why I hope my intimate chronicle will find favor in the eyes of the serious reader, who has no time to waste, and reads a book for the information it contains and its usefulness.

Some descriptions of what drove Haffner to leave Germany:

The world I had lived in dissolved and disappeared. Every day another piece vanished quietly, without ado. Every day one looked around and something else had gone and left no trace. I have never since had such a strange experience. It was as if the ground on which one stood was continually trickling away from under one’s feet, or rather as if the air one breathed was steadily, inexorably being sucked away.

What was happening openly and clearly in public was almost the least of it. Yes, political parties disappeared or were dissolved; first those of the left, then also those of the right; I had not been a member of any of them. The men who had been the focus of attention, whose books one had read, whose speeches we had discussed, disappeared into exile or the concentration camps; occasionally one heard that one or another had “committed suicide while being arrested” or been “shot while attempting to escape.” At some point in the summer the newspapers carried a list of thirty or forty names of famous scientists or writers; they had been proscribed, declared to be traitors to the people and deprived of their citizenship.

More unnerving was the disappearance of a number of quite harmless people, who had in one way or another been part of daily life. The radio announcer whose voice one had heard every day, who had almost become an old acquaintance, had been sent to a concentration camp, and woe betide you if you mentioned his name. The familiar actors and actresses who had been a feature of our lives disappeared from one day to the next. Charming Miss Carola Neher was suddenly a traitor to the people; brilliant young Hans Otto, who had been the rising star of the previous season, lay crumpled in the yard of an SS barracks — yes, Hans Otto, whose name had been on everyone’s lips, who had been talked about at every soiree, had been hailed as the “new Matkowski” that the German stage had so long been waiting for. He had “thrown himself out of a fourth-floor window in a moment when the guards had been distracted,” they said. A famous cartoonist, whose harmless drawings had brought laughter to the whole of Berlin every week, committed suicide, as did the master of ceremonies of a well-known cabaret. Others just vanished. One did not know whether they were dead, incarcerated, or had gone abroad — they were just missing.

The symbolic burning of the books in April had been an affair of the press, but the disappearance of books from the bookshops and libraries was uncanny. Contemporary German literature, whatever its merits, had simply been erased. Books of the last season that one had not bought by April became unobtainable. A few authors, tolerated for some unknown reason, remained like individual ninepins in the wreckage. Otherwise you could get only the classics — and a dreadful, embarrassingly bad literature of blood and soil, which suddenly sprang up. Readers — always a minority in Germany, and as they were daily told, an unimportant one at that — were deprived of their world overnight. Further, since they had quickly learned that those who were robbed might also be punished, they felt intimidated and pushed their copies of Heinrich Mann and Feuchtwanger into the back rows of their bookshelves; and if they dared to talk about the newest Joseph Roth or Jakob Wassermann they put their heads together and whispered like conspirators.

Many journals and newspapers disappeared from the kiosks — but what happened to those that continued in circulation was much more disturbing. You could not quite recognize them anymore. In a way a newspaper is like an old acquaintance: you instinctively know how it will react to certain events, what it will say about them and how it will express its views. If it suddenly says the opposite of what it said yesterday, denies its own past, distorting its features, you cannot avoid feeling that you are in a madhouse. That happened. Old-established democratic broadsheets such as the Berliner Tageblatt or the Vossische Zeitung changed into Nazi organs from one day to the next. In their customary, measured, educated style they said exactly the same things that were spewed out by the Angriff or the Völkischer Beobachter, newspapers that had always supported the Nazis. Later, one became accustomed to this and picked up occasional hints by reading between the lines of the articles on the arts pages. The political pages always kept strictly to the party line.

To some extent, the editorial staff had been replaced; but frequently this straightforward explanation was not accurate. For instance, there was an intellectual journal called Die Tat (Action), whose content lived up to its name. In the final years before 1933 it had been widely read. It was edited by a group of intelligent, radical young people. With a certain elegance they indulged in the long historical view of the changing times. It was, of course, far too distinguished, cultured, and profound to support any particular political party — least of all the Nazis. As late as February its editorials brushed them off as an obviously ephemeral phenomenon. Its editor in chief had gone too far. He lost his job and only just managed to save his neck (today he is allowed to write light novels). The rest of the editorial staff remained in post, but as a matter of course became Nazis without the least detriment to their elegant style and historical perspective — they had always been Nazis, naturally; indeed better, more genuinely and more profoundly so than the Nazis themselves. It was wonderful to behold: the paper had the same typography, the same name — but without batting an eyelid it had become a thoroughgoing, smart Nazi organ. Was it a sudden conversion or just cynicism? Or had Messrs. Fried, Eschmann, Wirsing, etc. always been Nazis at heart? Probably they did not know themselves. Anyway, I soon abandoned the question. I was nauseated and wearied, and contented myself with taking leave of one more newspaper.

All the same, the temptation to seal oneself off was a sufficiently important aspect of the period for me to devote some space to it. It has its part to play in the psychopathological process that has unfolded in the cases of millions of Germans since 1933. After all, to a normal onlooker most Germans today exhibit the symptoms of lunacy or at the very least severe hysteria. If you want to understand how this came about, you have to take the trouble to place yourself in the peculiar position in which non-Nazi Germans — and that was still the majority — found themselves in 1933, and try to understand the bizarre, perverse conflicts they faced.

The plight of non-Nazi Germans in the summer of 1933 was certainly one of the most difficult a person can find himself in: a condition in which one is hopelessly, utterly overwhelmed, accompanied by the shock of having been caught completely off balance. We were in the Nazis’ hands for good or ill. All lines of defense had fallen, any collective resistance had become impossible. Individual resistance was only a form of suicide. We were pursued into the farthest corners of our private lives; in all areas of life there was rout, panic, and flight. No one could tell where it would end. At the same time we were called upon, not to surrender, but to renege. Just a little pact with the devil — and you were no longer one of the captured quarry. Instead you were one of the victorious hunters.

That was the simplest and crudest temptation. Many succumbed to it. Later they often found that the price to be paid was higher than they had thought and that they were no match for the real Nazis. There are many thousands of them today in Germany, Nazis with a bad conscience. People who wear their Nazi badges like Macbeth wore his royal robes, who, in for a penny, in for a pound, now find their consciences shouldering one burden after another, who search in vain for a way out, drink and take sleeping pills, no longer dare to think, and do not know whether they should rather pray for the end of the Nazi era — their own era! — or dread it. When that end comes they will certainly not admit to having been the culprits. In the meantime, however, they are the nightmare of the world. It is impossible to assess what these people might still be capable of in their moral and psychological derangement. Their history has yet to be written.

Private life and liberalism

Sebastian Haffner’s memoir of the rise of Nazism in Germany, Defying Hitler, offers some fascinating insights into the role of development of private life in maintaining a liberal democracy:

After 1926 or thereabouts there was almost nothing worth discussing anymore. The newspapers had to find their headlines in foreign countries.

In Germany all was quiet, all was orderly; events took a tranquil course. There were occasional changes of government. Sometimes the parties of the right were in power and sometimes those of the left. It made no great difference. The foreign minister was always Gustav Stresemann. That meant peace, no risk of a crisis, and business as usual.

Money came into the country, the currency maintained its value, and business was good. The older generation began to retrieve its store of experience from the attic, burnish it bright, and show it off, as if it had never been invalidated. The last ten years were forgotten like a bad dream. The Day of Judgment was remote again, and there was no demand for saviors or revolutionaries. The public sector required only competent officials, and the private sector only hardworking businessmen. There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal- mindedness, good wages, good food, and a little political boredom.

Everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own tastes, and to find their own paths to happiness.

Now something strange happened — and with this I believe I am about to reveal one of the most fundamental political events of our time, something that was not reported in any newspaper: by and large that invitation was declined. It was not what was wanted. A whole generation was, it seemed, at a loss as to how to cope with the offer of an unfettered private life.

A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions, for love and hate, joy and sorrow, but also all their sensations and thrills — accompanied though they might be by poverty, hunger, death, chaos, and peril. Now that these deliveries suddenly ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful, and worthwhile, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of the political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk. In the end they waited eagerly for the first disturbance, the first setback or incident, so that they could put this period of peace behind them and set out on some new collective adventure.

To be precise (the occasion demands precision, because in my opinion it provides the key to the contemporary period of history): it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. They began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis.

I have already remarked in passing that the capacity for individual life and happiness is, in any case, less developed among the Germans than among other peoples. Later, in France and England, I observed with astonishment and envy, but also learned to appreciate, what a wealth of simple joy and what an inexhaustible source of lifelong pleasure the Frenchman finds in eating and drinking, intellectual debate, and the artistic pursuit of love; and the Englishman in the cultivation of gardens, the companionship of animals, and the sports and hobbies he pursues with such childlike gravity. The average German knows nothing of the sort. Only a certain cultured class — not particularly small, but a minority, of course — used to find, and still finds, similar sustenance and pleasure in books and music, in independent thought and the creation of a personal “philosophy.” For this class the ideals and joys of life were the exchange of ideas, a contemplative conversation over a glass of wine, a few faithfully and rather sentimentally maintained and nurtured friendships, and, last but not least, an intense, intimate family life.

Almost all of this had fallen into ruin and decay in the decade from 1914 to 1924 and the younger generation had grown up without fixed customs and traditions.

Outside this cultured class, the great danger of life in Germany has always been emptiness and boredom (with the exception perhaps of certain geographical border regions such as Bavaria and the Rhineland, where a whiff of the south, some romance, and a sense of humor enter the picture).

The menace of monotony hangs, as it has always hung, over the great plains of northern and eastern Germany, with their colorless towns and their all too industrious, efficient, and conscientious businesses and organizations. With it comes a horror vacui and the yearning for “salvation”: through alcohol, through superstition, or, best of all, through a vast, overpowering, cheap mass intoxication.

The basic fact that in Germany only a minority (not necessarily from the aristocracy or the moneyed class) understands anything of life and knows how to lead it — a fact that, incidentally, makes the country inherently unsuitable for democratic government — had been dangerously exacerbated by the events of the years from 1914 to 1924. The older generation had become uncertain and timid in its ideals and convictions and began to focus on “youth,” with thoughts of abdication, flattery, and high expectations. Young people themselves were familiar with nothing but political clamor, sensation, anarchy, and the dangerous lure of irresponsible numbers games. They were only waiting to put what they had witnessed into practice themselves, but on a far larger scale. Meanwhile, they viewed private life as “boring,” “bourgeois,” and “old-fashioned.” The masses, too, were accustomed to all the varied sensations of disorder. Moreover, they had become weak and doubtful about their most recent great superstition: the creed, celebrated with pedantic, orthodox fervor, of the magical powers of the omniscient Saint Marx and the inevitability of the automatic course of history prophesied by him.

If you need inspiration for kicking your news/politics addiction, and using that time and energy instead to cultivate your own private life, your own individual personality, your own close relationships with other individuals, I hope this helps.

Perhaps that slogan “the personal is political” can be appropriated by liberals and put to good use: For the sake of politics, develop as a person first.

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.

The first will be last

Who gets to decide who is stronger, weaker, aggressor and victim? The strongest.

To the degree being seen as weak is advantageous and valuable, the strongest will claim that status for itself. It will defend its claim. And when it speaks truth to power, it will respond with overwhelming force if its  powerful oppressors respond with insolent back talk.

The first will be last, and if try to stop them you will be crushed like an ant.

Is it 2005, again?

Somewhere around 2005 people in the habit of condemning their fellow citizens as “traitors” for questioning the Iraq invasion started sobering up, and in various ways tried to distance themselves from what they could now see was unfounded certainty about matters of moral intensity. But right up until that point, there was no question: They were on the right side of history.

From this experience I took one big, important lesson: Certainty that you are on the right side of history is the furthest thing from evidence that history will agree with you.

(It feels a little like 2005 to me right now.)

Subject rights, object rights

I was just talking to a friend of mine about pronouns and why language is so important to many people.

There is no doubt that language is political and has real social and material consequences. Therefore, nobody should ever blame anyone for critiquing language and arguing for change. It is also entirely fair to suspect anyone who says “sticks and stones” and denies these truths of lacking the experience of social vulnerability and powerlessness.

Arguing for change can mean many different things. It can mean anything from publicizing a personal choice to adopt more inclusive language, to advocating new standards of etiquette in one’s own social sphere, to codifying new linguistic practices within institutions who decide to do so, to using economic means to pressure individuals or organizations to comply with reformed language standards, to passing laws regulating language and punishing noncompliance. In other words, one can act interpersonally, socially, institutionally, economically or legislatively to make what one considers good or necessary changes to language.

As we move across this scale from personal to collective we should bear in mind something that is perhaps overemphasized among conservatives and underemphasized among progressives: the rights of the speakers, thinkers, judgers to speak, think and judge according to their own ideas, beliefs and consciences.

The rights of those who are spoken about, thought about, perceived and judged — the objects of language, thought, judgment, etc. — must be weighed against the rights of the subjects doing the speaking, thinking, judging, etc.

To put the problem simply, Person A thinks about, speaks about or expresses a judgment about Person B, whose rights prevail?

You cannot prevent Person A from oppressing Person B with beliefs that condemn and invalidate her very existence — beliefs which, if shared by society as a whole would make Person B’s life unlivable, without condemning, invalidating Person’s A’s existence. An argument can be made that Person A is intolerant, hateful and dangerous, and should be suppressed or contained to — but can’t it also be argued that a readiness to impose one’s own beliefs and morals on the rest of society and to forcibly suppress and punish those who disagree is also intolerant, dangerous and requiring suppression to protect dissidents? The point is not that one side is obviously right or wrong, but that looking at the full problem from multiple angles makes the question messier, makes it less obvious what ought to be done, and makes it easier to respect opposing views.

Object rights (the rights of those about whom we think speak) and subject rights (the rights of each person to speak their own truth) are in tension must be considered together and weighed together if we wish to do full justice to the problem.

Further we should not make the mistake of neglecting the more modest social actions an activist can take — conversation, etiquette, shaping of local social settings. Enforced conformity under threat of punishments ought to be a last resort, done reluctantly, under the most dire circumstances. It is not a small thing to force another person to conform to your own will and conscience, against their own will and conscience. We might be able to succeed here and there, but when we do, we have disrespected and violated the other person’s judgment and personal autonomy. We have (whether justified or not) insulted and oppressed them and likely made an enemy.

Persuasion does the opposite: by appealing to another person’s reason and moral sense and making arguments to them we show the greatest respect and produce solidarity in difference.

Producing solidarity in difference through respectful attempts to persuade — to say Thou to our adversaries, who share with us a commitment to appeals to reason and mutual acknowledgment of one’s subject and object rights — is the heart of liberalism, perhaps the most miraculous invention of humankind, so far.

*

If your reaction to this is “no, I do know what is true and right, and I intend to do whatever it takes to make my views prevail”, I would suggest that you do not really ultimately belong to a marginal or vulnerable group, even if that is how you identify. If you were, in fact, powerless and vulnerable you would have little hope of success using force. Your real political body believes itself capable of imposing its will on the unwilling. As you so often point out to others, it is true: we are often oblivious of our own power and privilege, and power often conceals itself in the truths and morals it imposes.

Reciprocities

Why is it that reading Nietzsche always sends me back into working in my wiki?

I just made a new theme: Reciprocity.

  • And under that page I created three headings:
    • Of help
    • Of harm
    • Of love

    I will offer a chord of quotes to indicate the theme that unites these three reciprocities.

    Of help:

    • “Pity is the most agreeable feeling among those who have little pride and no prospects of great conquests: for them easy prey — and that is what all who suffer are — is enchanting.”
    • “If he did not have the compensation of gratitude, the man of power would have appeared unpowerful and thenceforth counted as such. That is why every community of the good, that is to say originally the powerful, places gratitude among its first duties. Swift suggested that men are grateful in the same degree as they are revengeful.

    Of harm:

    • “Benefiting and hurting others are ways of exercising one’s power upon others — that is all one desires in such cases! One hurts those whom one wants to feel one’s power; for pain is a much more efficient means to that end than pleasure: — pain always raises the question about its origin while pleasure is inclined to stop with itself without looking back. … Certainly the state in which we hurt others is rarely as agreeable, in an unadulterated way, as that in which we benefit others, — it is a sign that we are still lacking power, or it shows a sense of frustration in the face of this poverty; it is accompanied by new dangers and uncertainties for what power we do possess, and clouds our horizon with the prospect of revenge, scorn, punishment, and failure. It is only for the most irritable and covetous devotees of the feeling of power that it is perhaps more pleasurable to imprint the seal of power on a recalcitrant brow — those for whom the sight of those who are already subjected (the objects of benevolence) is a burden and boredom. What is decisive is how one is accustomed to spice one’s life; it is a matter of taste whether one prefers the slow or the sudden, the assured or the dangerous and audacious increase of power, — one seeks this or that spice depending on one’s temperament.

    Of love:

    • “The cure for love is still in most cases that ancient radical medicine: love in return.”

    One more quote by Mary Davis, from the foreward of Maus’s The Gift is illuminating: “Charity is meant to be a free gift, a voluntary, unrequited surrender of resources. Though we laud charity as a Christian virtue we know that it wounds. I worked for some years in a charitable foundation that annually was required to give away large sums as the condition of tax exemption. Newcomers to the office quickly learnt that the recipient does not like the giver, however cheerful he be. This book explains the lack of gratitude by saying that the foundations should not confuse their donations with gifts. It is not merely that there are no free gifts in a particular place, Melanesia or Chicago for instance; it is that the whole idea of a free gift is based on a misunderstanding. There should not be any free gifts. What is wrong with the so-called free gift is the donor’s intention to be exempt from return gifts coming from the recipient. Refusing requital puts the act of giving outside any mutual ties. Once given, the free gift entails no further claims from the recipient. The public is not deceived by free gift vouchers. For all the ongoing commitment the free-gift gesture has created. it might just as well never have happened. According to Marcel Mauss that is what is wrong with the free gift. A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction.”

    *

    All this is why I have come to a place in my life where I only like interacting with equals, as equals, and this is why I remain specifically a left liberal: Rough equality is the necessary condition for liberalism. But where equality is pre-defined and imposed by one group upon another non-consenting group, there is already an equality-precluding power imbalance. Where equality prevails, any attempt to unilaterally referee justice, truth, morality, etc. must be viewed as delusional hubristic and futile. If this attempt is not, in fact, futile, the attempt to position oneself as an advocate of equality is delusional. And this is why I continue to insist “wokism” is a right-wing movement: it seeks radical inequality of classes, and justifies its lust for power with a mission of defending vulnerable identities, not only from genuine persecution, but also from hurt feelings.

    Real equality is a perpetual negotiation, perpetual conflict held in bounds by mutual dependence: agonistic pluralism. In such struggles, nobody gets a “safe space” from the anxious experience of having cherished beliefs challenged. And frankly, that is what “being triggered” is: it is the experience of existential dread we feel when fundamental concepts are challenged from a source beyond those beliefs.

    The more ideological we are the less we can distinguish our fundamental concepts from reality itself, and the more we confuse our experience of dread from a real threat of violence. Ironically, this ideological stance is the actual origin of real violence, since it views its extreme self-defense and just punishments of what feels threatening and is believed to be threatening with real threats, counterbalances theorized institutional bias with real institutionalized counter-biases, suspected hate with real, felt hate, theoretical violence with actual physical violence, and so on.

    The feeling that we are entitled to feel safe from our own perceptions and our beliefs about other people’s beliefs — freedom from feeling “triggered” — is a symptom of having too much power while needing the justifications of powerlessness in order to exercise it.

    You and whose army?

    Our sense of entitlement grows with our power.

    Those without any power have no rights and expect nothing.

    Those of equal power respect one another’s rights and the rights become more finely granulated and observed more exactly the more equality is achieved.

    Those with overwhelming power are free to imagine what they wish about the powerless, and the powerless are expected to complete the illusion by conforming to their expectations. And the most important conformity of all is worldview: those without power and rights have least of all the right to deny truth and justice.

    *

    Whoever feels entitled to control the contents of another person’s mind imagines themselves to have the power to succeed, correctly or incorrectly, consciously or unconsciously.

    It is not uncommon to delude oneself on the source of that power. Most conquerors of the New World acted under Christ’s power and authority, with a little extra assistance from sponsoring monarchs and investors. Anywhere the righteous exercise power under the authority of an abstract ideal — whether of God, of truth, of justice, of progress, of the market’s will — it pays to follow the advice of Deep Throat: Follow the money. Or say what children say on the playground when threatened: “you and whose army?” You’ll either call their bluff or learn exactly whose army underwrites their threats — in the name of the abstraction which is the source and justification of its power.

    Soul

    We are collections of potentials, known and unknown: spirits. We are spiritually composite, a society of spirits living on the land of a body.

    One’s soul is a spiritual society.

    One’s ethic is the soul’s government.

    One’s style is the soul’s culture.

    One’s inner life is the soul’s politics. Some of us are liberal democracies, e pluribus unum; some are dictatorships of self-discipline; some are theocratic police states; some are anarchies of decadence; and a great many of us are human civil wars.

    Please do not decenter yourself

    Decentering one’s self or one’s identity as a response to one’s former egocentrism or ethnocentrism is just this year’s model of altruism.

    Altruism is benevolence modeled on a stunted vision of individualism, which it tries to overcome by simply inverting it: Selfish people care about themselves at the expense of others, so unselfish people care about others at the expense of self.

    *

    We’ve experienced the consequences of the altruistic ideal in design.

    In the late 1990s and 2000s user experience design (UX) set out to help organizations stop being org-centric, and instead to be user-centric or customer-centric. Organizations who listened to us invested in research to find out what their customers wanted them to be and tried to become that. And everyone got told approximately the same thing, so wherever UX did its thing organizations started looking expertly, unobjectionably, and blandly alike. There was nothing wrong with the solutions — UX had seen to it that all flaws were removed — but there was nothing spectacularly right, either.

    The solutions were well-informed, but poorly-inspired.

    *

    I want to argue that an impoverished understanding of personhood is at the root of the uninspired, uninspiring, unobjectionable but bland products of UX.

    But I want to take it further and claim something more general and consequential:

    The impoverished understanding of personhood that belongs to altruistic ethics is responsible for uninspired, uninspiring, unobjectionable relationships incapable of sustaining personhood.

    The high divorce rate, the empty depravity of hookups, the shallowness and fragility of friendship, the feeling of victimization and oppression that motivates so many young activists to hunt down and punish whoever is responsible for one’s own bad experience of life (and, it appears, one’s own self-contempt) — all these are caused by a theory and practice of personhood that can only produce empty relationships and selfless, decentered alienation.

    This nothingness at the center where somethingness ought to be — nihility — is not neutral or numb or Buddhistically empty or void. On the contrary, nihility torments, aches, rings, glares, and stinks in its absence.

    Our last two generations were aggressively indoctrinated in this decentering, altruistic ethic of goodness. They, in turn, are replicating it everywhere they can, motivated by intense resentment toward a world that has put them in this state. Or, as they prefer to put it, out of a selfless love for the oppressed, with whom they identify.

    *

    I would propose as a replacement for this altruistic vision of personhood — self as an inert subjective object, a discrete, body-sized soul which moves around in space expending its limited resources caring for its own self or caring for other selves — with something radically different. I propose that we see selves as radiant centers, comprising smaller radiant centers, and contributing to larger radiant centers. A person is one unit of such centers, possessing a sort of center of gravity, based on the dynamic arrangement of centers at any given moment. Each of these centers, being radiant, extend in their being outward. In other words, they exist. Ex- “out” + -ist “be”.

    But these radiant centers, with their own personal “I” center of gravity, also constitute larger units of being, and these larger units are relationships. These “we” relationships change the dynamics within the person, and brings that person to exist within the larger being, as a member of the relationship as well as remaining a person.

    *

    The meaning of love changes with this reconception of personhood. Love is not so much a love of the other as other, but as a fellow participant in a relationship that is the next scale upward of oneself, a larger self in whom one is a participant — a participant in something real and transcendent to self, within whom one subsists as oneself. In the altruist conception of love the other is the object of one’s love, “I”, the subject, love “you”, the direct object of the love. In this new understanding of love, love is an enclosing subject within which love happens between persons.

    *

    The meaning of empathy — another favorite word among altruists — changes with this reconception of personhood.

    Empathy becomes a participant’s direct perception of the state of the larger beings of which it is a part. It is felt via the shifting dynamics of radiant centers within oneself in response to the changes of surrounding transcendent centers. Empathy is felt, but we lack language for its experiences — we have no “red”, “yellow”, “green” or “blue” — and so the speaking part of our mind (the only part of our mind the speaking mind acknowledges) refuses to acknowledge the reality known to empathy. Empathy is a sixth sense — a mode of perception, experienced with immediacy — and it is undeniably real to those who accept its reality.

    Empathy is the furthest thing from intensely imagined feelings of others, or the reaction one has to stories of other people’s suffering. What is called empathy today is more often just emotions generated by vivid imaginations, the virtue of avid readers of sentimental fiction.

    *

    A lot of pretty-sounding Jewish and Christian platitudes make very new sense when heard with ears that hear this way. In marriage we become one in flesh. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Christian idea that the Church is the bride of Christ. I even recognize this vision in Alain de Lille’s formula: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Seen this way, each center is one of infinite sparks of God, who approaches God by participating in ever-expanding nested scales of radiant being.

    So, forget altruism. We do not give ourselves up in order to have the other. We give up the limits of our discrete, body-sized soul in order to participate in larger and larger personhood, and it is this alone that makes life lovable, because this participation as persons, in new, larger persons is what love is.

    *

    By this logic:

    • We should stop telling our children “You are not the center of the universe.” Instead tell them “You are not the only center of the universe.”
    • We should stop doing user-centered or customer-centered, or any-centered design. A better ideal is polycentric design.
    • We should not decenter ourselves. We need our centers! We should polycenter ourselves.
    • We should absolutely not tell other people to decenter themselves. We may invite them to polycenter — as I am doing here, now.
    • We should not express love as “Not for me, but for you, alone.” We should instead express it as “Not for me, but for us, together.”
    • We should not treat gifts as transfers of ownership from giver to receiver. We should instead see gifts as investments what did belong to me, alone, now belongs to you as a member of we.
    • An identity should not be viewed as a classification that makes one person the same as another. Identity is identifying oneself as a member of a group, within whom one subsists. Identity is something we do, and it is not something another person can do to another — at least not respectfully.
    • We are never more self-centered in our small body-sized self than when we refuse to hear another perspective offered to us in good faith, but instead cling to our own omniscient already-knowing. Clinging to altruism does not make us less selfish, it destroys our selves, the very being who can love and be loved.

    Love and self-respect

    At the cusp of adulthood, in the summer of 1990, I became aware that I had two modes of esteem and identification, which I labeled “what I love” and “what I approve of”.

    I decided at that point in my life to embrace and identify with what I approved of and to distance myself from what I loved.

    This choice might seems strange by today’s standards, but I will argue that this was a necessary and wise decision.

    *

    In the autumn of 1990, my friend Rob handed me a slip of paper upon which he’d typed a Rilke quote “A merging of two people is an impossibility; and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see each other whole against the sky.” I feel sure that this passage completed and sealed my choice.

    I believe that taking this path allowed me 1) to cultivate a self-respectful (approved of) selfhood, and 2)to gain the distance needed to love someone else precisely for her otherness. “What is love but understanding and rejoicing at the fact that another lives, feels and acts in a way different from and opposite to ours?”

    *

    A capacity to love that which one finds compelling, admirable, but profoundly alien is a key virtue supporting living toward transcendence.

    A capacity to form self-respectful collaborations with likeminded souls is also a key virtue in transcendent becoming — growing beyond one’s limits.

    And, the wisdom of discerning selfhood and otherhood, and forming appropriate relations with each is necessary to avoid hating what you love and loving what you hate.

    *

    Today I am speculating on what might have happened, had I had made the opposite choice.

    What if I had chosen to identify with “what I love”, and distanced myself from “what I approve of”.

    Earlier, I mentioned that my decision probably looks pretty odd from the standpoint of 2021. Isn’t approval a cold, rationalistic standard? Shouldn’t we love ourselves, rather than just approve of ourselves?

    But consider the consequences: If one identifies with what one loves (and what one loves most is one’s transcendent complement, what one is not) one tries to become precisely what is least possible to be. Failure is inevitable, and when it happens, there is a real risk that one will envy and resent those who succeeded  —  again, precisely those who are most transcendently complementary, those whom one could best love across distance as other.

    And when one invests all of one’s time and energy pursuing an impossible ideal, this diverts time and energy away from the development of one’s own real potential. One’s real possibilities are neglected, and the self is left in an undeveloped state incapable of inspiring self-respect. As a substitute one authors a persona or adopts an identity and uses that as a substitute for selfhood. But this is a thin deception. The assertion of one’s persona or identity is a head-splitting whistling in the dark that barely masks the even louder shame and self-loathing looping beneath. Everything that threatens the illusion is viscerally painful and excites hostility.

    Unfortunately, this speculation is not purely speculative — but, in fact, informed by observations of people I know and have known, and many others I’ve listened to from a distance.

    And I am worried, because I suspect that this peculiarly selfless, but also otherless, state of mind might in fact be psychologically common, or even predominant in the last two generations. The strange, hyper-intense, symbolic politics of our age might be the projection of this inner hell onto the outer world.

    Existential nullity

    Blindness is not darkness — it burns our eyes with a dazzling glare of churning nothingness.

    Losing our sense of smell doesn’t make smell go away. The world is pervaded with a maddening stench of burning rubber.

    If we lose a limb, a phantom limb remains, and it aches and aches.

    Same with souls: those who neglect their unique personhood and instead adopt an identity will have a glaring, stinking, aching, resentful nullity where a soul should be.

    Room 101

    If someone were designing my ideal Hell (or if you prefer atheistic imagery, Room 101) put me on a team that designs by committee for a committee. You don’t even have to sentence me for eternity. A month is plenty to get my teeth gnashing, and more than a month will reduce me to the blackest despair.

    The thing that makes a design approach render clear social sense for me is that it makes sense of some region of the world in personal terms. We investigate how a specific person does specific things with specific things and experiences specific things, and our job is to make these interactions, artifacts and experiences good by the standard of that person. When learning from users, design researchers redirect all deflection of personal response (and users always try it) into speculation on how other people might respond with “we are interested only in what you think and feel, and what you would do.” By looking at responses one at a time, and only at the end finding any generalities, we rid ourselves of the noisy refractions of what people think other people think other people will think other people will think, which gives us more information on their social psychological folk-theories and and insights into how they would try to design the thing we are designing, than on their own personal responses to novel possibilities.

    Speculating on how heterogeneous groups of people might react to a design, and designing for an audience instead of persons is a different art, and an important one. It changes the activity from a interpersonal one to a social one, to use Buber’s distinction. The skillset becomes that of constructing systems that conform to the social rules of that social setting. These rules help people participate as members of a group, performing standard roles, which entails selectively suppressing personal idiosyncrasies, for the sake of smooth social functioning. This means the construction, too, must use standard language, in standard ways, denoting familiar concepts, used in familiar ways. Change at this sphere of design is exponentially difficult and often requires power and some degree of coercion.

    But if you are trying to do this kind of design in a group which is itself so large that it can no longer function by an interpersonal dynamic, but must adopt social rules to function, now we have something requiring a degree of talent for functioning within social rules to design things that function within set social rules. The smartest option in situations like this is to design activities with new, temporary social rules that “program” the group to interact differently to accomplish different outcomes. (Which is another way of saying: design and facilitate workshops, because a workshop is a temporary social setting with new roles and rules that afford new kinds of works and new work products.) Workshops can produce group outputs that differ from the usual, but they are still stiff lumbering things that never result in the kinds of surprising snd brilliant novelty interpersonal dialogue can produce. And that is probably fine. The stars for which very large organizations reach in their grandest moments are suspended like gravel in the upper reaches of clouds, somewhere above incompetent mediocrity but well-below that of the average novelist. Workshop outputs are plenty good enough, 95% of the time.

    *

    It just occurred to me: people who always operate by social rules (even their own invented rules), who play a role of their own self-identity (even their own original identity), and confine themselves to the categegories of their personal ontology (even an ontology of their own invention) — and consequently find it impossible to improvise in response to another in a dialogical setting feel, interact with others like workshop participants in little workshops of their own design.

    Maybe this is what I despise about political types who see roles and rules governing all things. When the “personal is political” dialogue, deep invention, all the inexhaustibly surprising, creative potential of persons encountering the unique personal kernel in the heart of each person’s soul — the mutual conflagration of divine sparks —  is lost. Instead corporate stability is imposed and preserved.

    Totalitarianism is eternal design by committee.

    *

    Room 101.

    Anne-Marie Willis’s “Ontological Designing”

    Yesterday, Nick freaked me out about the existence of Anne-Marie Willis’s paper “Ontological Designing”. I was so distressed about possibly being scooped, and also about the state of my current project — a distress possibly biologically amplified by an infected eyelid — that I barely slept last night. I was dreaming about this stuff.

    Today I got up, read most of the paper and sent Nick the reply below, which seems worth keeping.

    Ok, this is not what I am doing, though it is the kind of ontological designing Willis describes here that informs my project.

    This paper appears to be written from the perspective of a user contemplating designs-ready-made, not a design practitioner reflecting on design-in-the-making (to adapt Latour’s distinction).

    The experiences that feed my thought (experiences I am undergoing, unfortunately, though quite conveniently, on this very project) are the reworkings of understanding induced by the breaking of individual interpretations and understandings upon an (as yet) inconceivable design problem.

    In these situations, designers are forced to instaurate new local micro-philosophies that permit collaborators with incommensurable understandings to “align” their efforts to design equipment that can be readily recognized in a present-at-hand mode, adopted, and then used in a ready-to-hand mode. I think this microphilosophizing is an underrecognized gap both in design practice (which tends to focus its thinking on its tasks at hand, and rarely to macrophilosophize) and in philosophy (which rarely participates directly in the kinds of hellish rarefied design projects that inform my concerns).

    My work is describing what happens if we apply the lessons of constant local microphilosophizing back to macrophilosophizing.

    I think it is important because I’m seeing the same dynamics I see in my mini-hells unfolding in the larger world in our incapacity to align on what to do about — well — everything. The disgruntled tolerance for the postmodern condition and its refusal to macrophilosophize (due to the po-mo allergy to grand narratives) has contributed to a deep fracturing and factionalizing of our citizenry.

    And you can see that this idea of designerly coevolution completely misses the central problem: How do we agree on what to do in the first place, in order to world our world into a state where maybe it can coevolve us back into a more livable, peaceful condition? Everyone is full of end-solutions, but at a loss to explain or even frame the problem of why we can’t get there, except to invent theories of viciousness about those who refuse to cooperate. We do not know how to think these kinds of conflicts, which are essentially just political crises — but I think I do have some clarifying insights, thanks to my occasional hell-immersions, and my funny habit of trying to feel better by understanding their hellishness and applying the resulting insights back to my own grand narrative, which I happen to think is better than the ones that developed in the vacuum of public intellectuals being to smart and stylish to perform their duties.

    Conflict of Visions

    The shift

    From Daybreak: “On the natural history of rights and duties. — Our duties — are the rights of others over us. How have they acquired such rights? By taking us to be capable of contracting and of requiting, by positing us as similar and equal to them, and as a consequence entrusting us with something, educating, reproving, supporting us. … If power-relationships undergo any material alteration, rights disappear and new ones are created — as is demonstrated in the continual disappearance and reformation of rights between nations. If our power is materially diminished, the feeling of those who have hitherto guaranteed our rights changes: they consider whether they can restore us to the full possession we formerly enjoyed — if they feel unable to do so, they henceforth deny our ‘rights’. Likewise, if our power is materially increased, the feeling of those who have hitherto recognised it but whose recognition is no longer needed changes: they no doubt attempt to suppress it to its former level, they will try to intervene and in doing so will allude to their ‘duty’ — but this is only a useless playing with words. Where rights prevail, a certain condition and degree of power is being maintained, a diminution and increment warded off. The rights of others constitute a concession on the part of our sense of power to the sense of power of those others. If our power appears to be deeply shaken and broken, our rights cease to exist: conversely, if we have grown very much more powerful, the rights of others, as we have previously conceded them, cease to exist for us. — The ‘man who wants to be fair’ is in constant need of the subtle tact of a balance: he must be able to assess degrees of power and rights, which, given the transitory nature of human things, will never stay in equilibrium for very long but will usually be rising or sinking: — being fair is consequently difficult and demands much practice and good will, and very much very good sense.”

    This has been one of the central understandings that informs my politics — the one argument for equity that I find compelling. When any single political group becomes so powerful it no longer needs the other’s consent, or where it is do able to dominate it that it need not fear retaliation, it can dismiss that group’s protests and either dominate it or exclude it. All with the clearest conscience.

    And the impotent fury of the powerless at the smug and ignorant moral self-satisfaction of the powerful is a truly dangerous force — especially if the powerful group (thinking inside its own logical bubble) overestimates its power and overplays its hand before the powerless group is truly helpless and unable to retaliate.

    Anyone who sets aside the filters and logic of popular philosophy, and closely observes the relationship between power and truth will see something strange: first-person perspectives bend and warp around power without deciding to, or even noticing it is happening. The power-induced change in feelings and thoughts — even memories — are experienced as an epiphany or moment of clarity. “Now that I think about it, I see the truth, a truth that was there all along, I just never noticed…!”

    I know a couple where one spouse took on a new energizing project, while the other was sinking into a debilitating depression. The energized spouse, looking through the lens of a new power balance, suddenly had insights about the depressed spouse and their years of marriage, and reassessed its value.

    From the perspective of the old power balance, both would have recognized this shift as a betrayal of the worst kind, at exactly the moment when loyalty matters most.

    But this is no longer the active perspective. The very standard of what is true, just and good changes with the change in power-relation. An epiphany occurs. The situation transfigures into a liberation story. …Or it transfigures for one side, the side with the power, the side who sees the truth. The other spouse is in no position to protest. The weak perspective can be disparaged and dismissed in the terms of the stronger one. And the weak perspective might even have to adopt the strong perspective if the relationship is to continue. This creates an illusion that there was really only one valid side to this conflict. The winners write history.

    It is all unnervingly innocent, it happens constantly, and it is all concealed under language that artificially preserves an appearance of integrity and continuity.

    And this story, writ large, is the story of our times.