Among those on the Right, a disturbing tendency appears time and again where we attempt to use the arguments of our enemies against them, but go too far and use their language.
To defeat a party by using its own arguments, you must show that your way works better in terms of achieving goals, and also possibly that their way does not achieve its goals. If the mayor says he wants to decrease litter, and he wants to do it by putting more trash cans in the town square, pointing out that most of the littering does not occur there is a winning argument.
But Leftist language is not about goals; it is entirely categorical. You are either ideologically correct or the enemy. This is why it tends to operate in binary forms that designate a category of bad things, and an “anti” category for those that oppose them. People signal obedience by belonging to the latter.
For this reason, to use Leftist language is to affirm one side or the other when the actuality of the situation is more complex. Are you an ableist — a Leftist term meaning those who favor physically fit people — or not? Does the world ever fit into such narrow categories? Most people do not take ideological positions, but realistic ones, and the Left forces them into a categorical choice to control them.
If you are not an ableist, after all, you agree with the Leftist position against ableism. On the other hand, if you say you are an ableist or try to evade the question, you will be filed in a neat little box of ideas that the Leftists want you to think are socially unacceptable. It is their way of either forcing you to conform or beginning the process of destroying you.
Those who are not Leftist can defeat Leftists by rejecting their terms. This is why it is self-defeating (the worst kind of defeat) to use terms and metaphors like the following:
You may recognize the second item as the failed DR3/DemsRtheRealRacists ploy which generally serves more as an indicator of cuckservative intent than a refutation of Leftism.
Many on the Dissident Right mock cuckservatives for engaging in “DR3” or DemsRRealRacists i.e. incapable of defending their values on their merits, they concede the Left’s moral premises, but accuse them of being the “real racists”, homophobes, sexists etc.
If you need to call the Left nasty names, try these instead:
Unlike Leftist language, these are descriptive terms based on the behavior of Leftists. They also explain Leftism as a pathology and not an ideology, which is its weakness and why Leftists tend to be so fanatical. It is time to retake language from politics, and stop using it to affirm the Leftist narrative in a misguided attempt to attack Leftism. That never works.
Imagine if you will, an ensemble of old friends meeting after dinner in a nightclub. Imagine the delight of recognition, the exchange of humorous stories and the subsequent re-affirmation of that friendship, by engaging in a team-building exercise provided by the club.
Most of us have had such events such as with friends who graduated from the same school. Now imagine that it is people who have never been friends. Then you get closer to the after dinner club where “established” ex-politicians and expats from around the globe regularly meet.
Meet the “anglicized,” politically correct Establishment.
At this point you may ask how it is possible that “friends” can happily meet each other and engage in serious subversive activities without knowing each other. It is quite simple really: you use humor and you greet diplomatically in English. After all, English is the lingua franca in the West.
It will not be apparent immediately, but using humor is problematic. According to Geert Hofstede’s seminal book Culture’s Consequences:
What is considered funny is highly culture specific, and many jokes are untranslatable. Germans are often considered humorless by foreigners who don’t recognize that senses of humor differ. Experienced travelers know that it is unwise to attempt to use jokes and irony abroad until one is absolutely sure of the other culture’s conception of humor.
What this means is that the language of “diplomacy” used at these after dinner parties can be viewed as a discourse in trade because over time it has become apparent that these “parties” lead to an exchange of “favors” culminating in the build-up of funds in “foundations.”
This is what Hofstede wrote on “trade languages”;
Throughout history, trade languages have played an important role in intercultural encounters. Contemporary examples, aside from the various derivations of English, are Bahasa (Malay) and Swahili. Trade languages are “pidgin” forms of natural languages, and the world trade language consist of pidgin forms of business English.
It is quite understandable that only a few words are necessary to communicate a smile because diplomats will laugh at anything. And then to indicate how much money is required is also quite easy. But what few will understand is that by simplifying their language, they themselves become simpletons. In other words, pidgin language turns its users into pidgins.
It is clear that over time English has been over-simplified. Here is Hofstede’s take on it;
Discourse in trade languages limits communication to those issues for which these simplified languages have words; it misses the idiosyncrasies of local languages, which are the very essence of culture.
Then Hofstede delivers the English kill-shot:
Paradoxically, having English, the world trade language (lingua franca), as one’s mother tongue is a liability, not an asset, for truly communicating with other cultures.
Now again, imagine that a couple a broad-shouldered men mansplain to each other in good humored fashion while not getting a single word about what’s going on. To do that requires real acting skill.
But it goes much deeper than that unfortunately. In a study by Serge Ntamack in Cameroon called “Rebellion as a Lifestyle” he found that no rebellion actually takes place (just protests during 2008), but that the “street culture” exhibited the unusual trait of language inversion. This means they use the same words that elitists use, but mean the opposite in an act of continuous rebellion IMO.
When Cameroonian elitists crack a joke, everybody laughs, but for different reasons. It became quite obvious that global elites are speaking a pidgin English because common people don’t “get” them anymore. In fact Trump was admonished for speaking such a “populist” language – something “real” elites are not supposed to do.
Clearly it is actually the other way round – the Elites are actually speaking the simplified English. This means (simple) working people has a choice of using pidgin language themselves or to develop a “counter” or “real” language as happened in Cameroon.
That people choose the language they use in pidgin style or otherwise, is intuitive. Therefore it will come as a surprise that language, on its own, can affect people in a reverse sort of way. This happens, as described above, when language is simplified to enable trade thereby miss-understanding the idiosyncrasies and humor “without knowing it happens” to a large degree.
What happens to the user of this pidgin language is that he/she loses the ability to “conceptualize” anything in a meaningful way i.e. everything becomes whatever politically correctness determines it to be at that point in time.
It is almost binary in a sense, where you either become “converted” to the elitist “faith”, or you simply remain “based” in a traditional sense. It is therefore interesting to know that one thread of philosophy explored this particular problem:
Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) was a French philosopher (working at Yale) who introduced “deconstruction” as a method to break with Western metaphysical thinking based on binaries. Derrida demonstrated how all assumptions on human life and behavior are grounded in our use of language.
One possible deduction from this is that normal people engaging in the use of pidgin English for extended periods are likely to end up assuming that everybody else thinks the same and does the same. The essence of the pidgin comes in the confusion of universally used language with universal understanding, because the super-simplified corporate pidgin reduces misunderstanding by being primitive and without nuance.
The impact of the dumbing down of our minds through dumbed down language is enormous. Other examples of English simplification have been explored notably by Dan Roodt in his book Raiders of the Lost Empire. But one positive in all of this is that working people are better at languages than the elite.
In fact the elite have become robotic blockheads, incapable of depth or complexity, in their quest for pidgin popularity, and this is why they seemingly pathologically enact failure-prone policies while feeling they are powerless to do anything but the same. We dumbed down language to be more accessible and universal, and like democracy, then language became a tool for making us stupid. This is how empires perish.
The Kingdom of Speech
by Tom Wolfe
Little, Brown and Company. 169 pages (2016)
While some have identified this book as an assault on Darwinism, it is more appropriate to view The Kingdom Of Speech as a critique of the arrogance of science in drawing broad conclusions from scant evidence.
Wolfe approaches this topic by looking at the sub-discipline which inspired the title of the book, linguistics; specifically, he targets Chomsky-era “theoretical” linguistics in which academics invented conjectural theories and then defended them against actual evidence that refuted their assumptions. This was achieved when anthropologist Daniel Everett studied the Pirahã people of the Amazon rainforest and found that their language lacked a key Chomskian trait, recursivity.
That revelation in turn provoked another: language was not, as asserted, an inherent structure that arose from evolution itself, but a human tool for understanding the world, and it does not have a single structure shared among all people, or a universal structure. Universal structures support the idea that all humans are basically the same and suggests they share an origin; arbitrary structures show that humans are widely different and think in vastly different ways.
Everett didn’t so much attack Chomsky’s theory as dismiss it. He spoke of Chomsky’s “waning influence” and the mounting evidence that Chomsky was wrong when he called language “innate.” Language had not evolved from …anything. It was just an artifact. Just as man had taken natural materials, namely wood and metal, and combined them to create the ax, he had taken natural sounds and put them together in the form of codes representing objects, actions and ultimately, thoughts and calculations — and called the codes words. (141)
This point cannot be stressed enough: Wolfe has discovered Nihilism of the kind discussed in this journal. Language is arbitrary, or at least begins arbitrarily, and is an invention of humanity, not the other way around. It is a tool. It has no innate worth other than the fact that two or more people can use it to communicate. And as Nietzsche discovered, it is also a powerful weapon that can destroy good things:
But because man, out of need and boredom, wants to exist socially, herd-fashion, he requires a peace pact and he endeavors to banish at least the very crudest bellum omni contra omnes [war of all against all] from his world. This peace pact brings with it something that looks like the first step toward the attainment of this enigmatic urge for truth. For now that is fixed which henceforth shall be “truth”; that is, a regularly valid and obligatory designation of things is invented, and this linguistic legislation also furnishes the first laws of truth: for it is here that the contrast between truth and lie first originates. The liar uses the valid designations, the words, to make the unreal appear as real; he says, for example, “I am rich,” when the word “poor” would be the correct designation of his situation. He abuses the fixed conventions by arbitrary changes or even by reversals of the names. When he does this in a self-serving way damaging to others, then society will no longer trust him but exclude him. Thereby men do not flee from being deceived as much as from being damaged by deception: what they hate at this stage is basically not the deception but the bad, hostile consequences of certain kinds of deceptions. In a similarly limited way man wants the truth: he desires the agreeable life-preserving consequences of truth, but he is indifferent to pure knowledge, which has no consequences; he is even hostile to possibly damaging and destructive truths. And, moreover, what about these conventions of language? Are they really the products of knowledge, of the sense of truth? Do the designations and the things coincide? Is language the adequate expression of all realities?
Only through forgetfulness can man ever achieve the illusion of possessing a “truth” in the sense just designated. If he does not wish to be satisfied with truth in the form of a tautology—that is, with empty shells—then he will forever buy illusions for truths. What is a word? The image of a nerve stimulus in sounds. But to infer from the nerve stimulus, a cause outside us, that is already the result of a false and unjustified application of the principle of reason. If truth alone had been the deciding factor in the genesis of language, and if the standpoint of certainty had been decisive for designations, then how could we still dare to say “the stone is hard,” as if “hard” were something otherwise familiar to us, and not merely a totally subjective stimulation! We separate things according to gender, designating the tree as masculine and the plant as feminine. What arbitrary assignments! How far this oversteps the canons of certainty! We speak of a “snake”: this designation touches only upon its ability to twist itself and could therefore also fit a worm. What arbitrary differentiations! What one-sided preferences, first for this, then for that property of a thing! The different languages, set side by side, show that what matters with words is never the truth, never an adequate expression; else there would not be so many languages. The “thing in itself” (for that is what pure truth, without consequences, would be) is quite incomprehensible to the creators of language and not at all worth aiming for. One designates only the relations of things to man, and to express them one calls on the boldest metaphors. A nerve stimulus, first transposed into an image—first metaphor. The image, in turn, imitated by a sound—second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one. One can imagine a man who is totally deaf and has never had a sensation of sound and music. Perhaps such a person will gaze with astonishment at Chladni’s sound figures; perhaps he will discover their causes in the vibrations of the string and will now swear that he must know what men mean by “sound.” It is this way with all of us concerning language; we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things—metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities. In the same way that the sound appears as a sand figure, so the mysterious X of the thing in itself first appears as a nerve stimulus, then as an image, and finally as a sound. Thus the genesis of language does not proceed logically in any case, and all the material within and with which the man of truth, the scientist, and the philosopher later work and build, if not derived from never-never land, is a least not derived from the essence of things.
Wolfe explores this idea through a volume that is mostly historical, describing first the clash between Darwin and other competitors for the idea of natural selection, and then how that failed to explain language and this drove the rise of Chomsky and the theoretical linguists. The book then detours into the explorations of Daniel Everett and how these refuted the prevailing Chomskian regime, and how nastily and dishonestly that regime fought back.
The Kingdom Of Speech shows Wolfe at his most palatable. Starting with I Am Charlotte Simmons, a type of plain-spoken low-adornment speech crept into his usual bombastic writing, and here it flowers with mostly potent descriptive language bursting into occasional bits of what we might call “song.” Wolfe waxes lyrical with new expansiveness, bringing in cultural and political fragments as metaphor indirectly, giving his writing more of a broad halo of context than a straight narrative could allow.
In the end analysis, the attacks on Darwinism in this book are not attacks on Darwinism, but on its interpretation. Wolfe indirectly asserts parallels between the Chomskians and the Darwinians, pointing out that more is unknown than known, and that theoretical extrapolation is most frequently wildly, hilariously, and absurdly wrong. This allows his main topic to rise in an evanescent fashion from the center of his argument, which is nothing is universal nor inherent; these are merely things that occurred ad hoc as humanity struggled to evolve and then understand itself.
Following on his discussions of homo loquax from earlier works, Wolfe shows us how language is a weapon — and the Chomskians are exhibit A. He hints that their insistence on universalism in language was a method of backdooring egalitarianism into science, when no such assumption can be proven or has foundation. In his view, language when viewed as a tool becomes something more like combat than an expression of some inward truth shared between all humans:
Only speech gives man the power to dream up religions and gods to animate them…and in six extraordinary cases to change history — for centuries — with words alone, without money or political backing. The names of the six are Jesus, Muhammad (whose military power came only after twenty years of preaching), John Calvin, Marx, Freud — and Darwin. And this, rather than any theory, is what makes Darwin the monumental figure that he is. (165)
Careful readers will note that this is not Wolfe attacking Darwin, but pointing out that Darwinism as a concept has power far greater than science. It is a political statement and a social one, even religious if one views it as a replacement for religion. In the Wolfeian analysis, language dictates history, and the concepts in it have the ability to subjugate others and bend them to the will of whatever intention directs those concepts, which leads us to wonder if communication and manipulation are not one and the same.
His timing is fortuitous. Across the globe, a general backlash against universalism has begun that very likely will be as profound as the changes wrought by Darwinism. For example, in a parallel event to the research of Daniel Everett, researchers have found that human facial expressions are not universal, just as language is not, by finding an exception to the rule:
When you’re smiling, it may feel like the whole world is smiling with you, but a new study suggests that some facial expressions may not be so universal. In fact, several expressions commonly understood in the West—including one for fear—have very different meanings to one indigenous, isolated society in Papua New Guinea. The new findings call into question some widely held tenets of emotional theory, and they may undercut emerging technologies, like robots and artificial intelligence programs tasked with reading people’s emotions.
For more than a century, scientists have wondered whether all humans experience the same basic range of emotions—and if they do, whether they express them in the same way. In the 1870s, it was the central question Charles Darwin explored in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. By the 1960s, emeritus psychologist Paul Ekman, then at the University of California (UC) in San Francisco, had come up with an accepted methodology to explore this question. He showed pictures of Westerners with different facial expressions to people living in isolated cultures, including in Papua New Guinea, and then asked them what emotion was being conveyed. Ekman’s early experiments appeared conclusive. From anger to happiness to sadness to surprise, facial expressions seemed to be universally understood around the world, a biologically innate response to emotion.
In this case, what was assumed to be true of all humans turned out not to be, which causes us to reassess the idea of universality in itself, and brings up other challenging ideas like parallel evolution, if we assume that our traits cause us to make facial expressions in a certain way. Or perhaps like language, it is random, given that there are only a certain number of distinctive facial expressions that can be used to communicate.
To read more deeply into the topic introduced in this book, Wolfe writes about linguistic hacking, or the use of language to re-program other people to do the will of the speaker, especially if it is disguised through the use of categories to shape our understanding of the relationships between objects, or causes and effects. This idea comes to prominence in his analysis of Darwinism.
Like Chomsky’s idea of universal language, Darwinian natural selection is an idea so well entrenched in the scientific community that it is viewed as beyond assailing. Wolfe, who is an atheist, describes science — but even more importantly, the views of certain scientists — as a new religion which controls our thought as much as the words of Jesus or Mohammad are influential. In particular, Darwinism gives us a bias toward the present tense and our own civilization as it is now, because whatever exists now must have happened through natural selection, and therefore is as close to “good” as we will admit anything is.
Wolfe has made a career of crushing sacred cows and sacrificing popular idols. With The Kingdom Of Speech, he takes on the cornerstones of modernity itself: that our interpretation of Darwinism that favors our current state is correct, that people really are the same everywhere, and that humanity was shaped by external forces like language instead of inventing these things to help itself grow. Reading between the lines, he is tackling the myth of progress itself.
For a short book, and one in which most of the text is narrative, The Kingdom Of Speech packs a heck of a punch. There is plenty to think about here, and as usual Wolfe has zoomed in on the nexus of support structures which holds up our present-day self-conception. These attributes guarantee it a place in history, but it also provides a fast and enjoyable read for those who like seeing finer logic defeat popular ideas.
“Keep your eye on the wolf my boy, forget about the sheep. Now aim behind the knee, breathe slowly out while squeezing the trigger.”
“Honey, remember those microphones and audio recorders I installed all over the house? Yes dear? The data shows that little Darren only calls for his Papa when he is on the toilet! But that is what you told him to do my dear!”
The above examples of what kids do and how they learn demonstrate their ability to accept and copy what a trusted person communicates to them. Educationalists know that teaching involves breaking things down and building it up again over time (as an example) to allow the student to get that a-ha feeling (by himself).
The entire raising of children and educational process is strung out over time to accommodate all the steps required to achieve the highest possible knowledge transfer rate. But essentially each person gets only one chance.
We seem to have forgotten that. The chance provided is however, unique to each person. Imagine someone wants to adopt your child – what would your criteria be to maximize his chances? The following examples affect your chances:
Having a stable communal environment (crèche, hospital, transport, work, police, leadership)
Having two parents (home environment)
It is apparently common knowledge that children should be raised and taught (at least to primary school) in their mother language.
A lot of things are missing from this list. The most important one is that the child and parent must understand each other, because if they do, they will eventually get to a point of trust confirmation, which may take months (at least). For example, if the parent lied to the child, just once, that child will not trust him – overall. The same happens in reverse too but takes longer, for example a delinquent child manipulating his father, will estrange his father.
Clearly getting the message the first time is important, because the more it gets repeated, the more the child falls behind in his curriculum. The importance of the child’s ability to listen and interpret cannot be overstated with regard to safety and security. However, little children will watch their parents every single day, identifying signals and clues that will affect their own actions – even unknowingly. For example @stefanmolyneux pointed out that even just not having a father around affects the menstrual onset of young girls. If a family would regularly participate in sports, the children will find that natural and they will be careful, knowing what to look for. The same with parents engaging in wildlife or nature and specifically farming, will have children that “gets” their environment better that city-folk, hence safer and more careful.
A child’s physical and psychological development is entirely dependent on what parents, teachers and friends/family do with him/her early on in life (Not ignoring genetics of course). In a sense one would “always” go out on a Sunday drive, or “always” milk the cows at 5 o’clock in the morning. But the child is only young once. The parent has only one chance. The question begging here is – what risks affect this chance?
The highest priority risk is language, because it leads to trust, which leads to safety. Trust leads to productivity, culture, civilization. If trust has broken down (for any reason) then reviving civilization will require a new language. This does not mean we should all speak Esperanto, it simply means that we have to coordinate the meaning of concepts and terminology associated with things that affect our survival, and not in a politically correct way.
There are stories of German children that were parentless after WW2. Many of them were simply sent to Allied countries to be adopted, but many were taken in as “slave” labor. Some of their stories came out decades later where despite bad treatment, their genes pushed them to just work hard and become successful. However, they still had the Heimat to strive for; what would they have done if there was simply nothing? After all, Italians today do not resemble Romans and they do not even speak Latin anymore.
Sometimes, very rarely, both sides make sense. Inevitably they are approaching the issue from different angles. One such case is the troubling word “thug.”
According to many voices on the right, “thug” is an accurate term for those who riot in our cities. According to many on the left, it is a veiled reference — a “dog whistle” — that is used in surrogate to mean “African-Americans.”
Both sides are correct, but neither is right.
As summarized by the National Review, the term “thug” not only is not used solely for African-Americans, but is also a moral judgment worth preserving. There is merit to this argument, as the term condemns those practicing what are seen as immoral acts by conservative minds:
Now we have another example of the denial of moral truths. Last week, a number of leftists — black and white — announced that it is racist to label the rioters and looters in Baltimore “thugs.” Even though both the black mayor of Baltimore and the black president of the United States did so, the left-wing argument is that the term “thug” is never applied to whites, only to blacks. The T-word is, in effect, the new N-word.
In the view of that writer, the left does not share the moral compass of the right. For the left, a rioter is a person with a justifiable grievance borne of socioeconomic disadvantage; for the right, the rioter is someone who made the moral choice to riot instead of addressing the situation in a more effective way.
At the same time, the word “thug” unnerves me because of its judgmental nature. If the left is approving, and the right is condemning, I remain in defense of descriptive language and the seemingly extremist position that we call rioters “rioters.” Describing their actions instead of trying to guess at their motivations allows us to associate the person with the act instead of with our judgment.
Some would say this bends too far to the left. That by failing to condemn these people outright, I am signaling approval of their acts. That only makes sense if one views “rioting” itself as a morally neutral act. Otherwise, a crime is described through those who are committing it. There is no need to use another term for it.
Leftist theories on linguistic relativity — the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis and its ilk — suggest that we can change how people think about an object through the language we use to refer to it. In particular, leftists object to negative language and prefer positive terms. This makes the same mistake they accuse the right of, however, which is loading terms in the dialogue with moral pre-judgment. The left approves, the right condemns.
It seems to me we might be better served by using neutral terms. A mugger is a mugger, a politician who takes bribes is corrupt, and those who start riots are… rioters. This assigns to them the moral choice to engage in the act without attempting to judge all riots. This forces the person listening to wake up, pay attention and make up their own mind, instead of going along with the voices that intend to have power over them by using loaded terms.
By the same token, the right is also correct: the leftist mania for approving of criminal acts in order to preserve its vision of itself as altruistic by arguing for the underdog is also insanity. There is no point to condemning terms as racist simply because all of the rioters are African-American. And yet… the leftists make a good point. It is clear that in many uses, the term “thug” is a surrogate for saying “African-American,” much like the term “youth” has been in media for years. Who flash mobbed the 7-11? “Youths.” Who staged a mass disturbance at Freaknic? “Youths.” It gets ridiculous. The grim truth here is that while leftists have a point about the term “thug,” it is only being used for one reason: the media refuses to identify the race of groups, especially during racially-charged events like the race riots in Baltimore.
Of course, this brings us into awkward terms like “disproportionately African-American rioters,” but other than the extra syllables, why is this a problem? We are supposed to be speaking the truth about issues, and this was a majority African-American riot related to the (perceived) disproportionately violent treatment of African-Americans by police. Why hide the issue? For the left, the answer is to hide the issue when the rioters attract blame, and bring it up when they can be praised, because the leftist is agenda is anti-majoritarian. If the United States were founded and ruled by African-Americans, the press would be fawning over Asiatics and Hispanic indios instead of African-Americans. This underdog agenda allows the left to claim itself as altruistic and thus insulate itself from most criticism.
On a broader level, I find this debate intriguing because it is a power play in the world of language alone. Both sides are arguing over which loaded terms the other can use to manipulate the audience. This reveals the fundamental corruption in how we approach language which is that we create from it signals, not meaning. Leftists signal their altruism by using the term “unrest” instead of “riot,” and the right signals its integrity with the term “thugs.” Both of these terms move us farther from seeing the essence of the issue, which is a fundamental fracture between not only racial groups, but right and left, suggesting that this ideological proposition nation might not be working so well after all.
All of us who grew up in the West grew up under a mythos that liberty, capitalism and freedom were better than the regimented societies we saw in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and North Korea.
The problem with this myth is that it’s true. Having someone tell you what to do is a motivation killer, and capitalism clearly works better than communism. However, “true” is the most dangerous assessment, because it is not Boolean.
We tend to think of truth in its conversational terms. “Billy is fat,” someone says. “Well, that’s true,” we rejoin. “But he’s not as fat as Sandra.” Both are fat, to different degrees. In certain contexts, Billy may not even be fat (among sea lions, for example). But in order to use conversational logic, we must assert first that our mental notion of Billy has that little switch flipped that marks him as a fatty fat pants.
In the same way, the West’s mythos is true, but only partially, which makes it the most dangerous mythos: the truish kind. Liberty is great. Not having any obligation to do anything but please oneself is great. Capitalism makes better products than socialism. These are all unquestionably true.
However, there are troubling qualifications to these. For example, capitalism tends to make better products, which doesn’t always mean superior objects. A Big Mac is a superior product, but no one is going to argue it’s better quality food than what you can purchase for a few dollars more. Planned obsolescence makes better products, like the iPods whose batteries you cannot replace, giving them a guaranteed short lifespan.
One of the underlying notions of our Western mythos is that competition will save us from such conditions. It doesn’t, apparently, although our libertarian friends tirelessly remind us that incompetence creates opportunities. The rejoinder is that when most people are OK with a Big Mac, there is no opportunity to unseat McDonald’s; you can be a niche success, but that’s as big as you’ll get. Same with Coca-Cola, pop music, junk architecture, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc. They’re junk food but junk food exists because of an inherent weakness in the human design.
This is one troubling aspect of competition, which is that it rewards our tendency to the lowest common denominator. Junk food is crass and cheap, but it is also comforting. It never changes. It is easily consumed and has no “troubling” flavors like asparagus or a tuna steak. Sometimes, it is the best option, and it’s clearly superior to the empty breadlines of Russia.
Another troubling aspect of competition is that it causes conformity. To see how this is, we should look at the experience of two upper-half-of-middle-class Westerners, Jenna and Max.
Jenna is going abroad for her senior year in high school. She is doing this because everyone else in her group seems to be competing for this result, so it appears to be valuable. She reasons that if something better had come about, it would have predominated over this type of behavior.
Max runs a small business. He notes that 75% of his competitors use the same technique of making widgets. He realizes that if he uses a different technique, and results are not as expected, he’ll look like an idiot for not simply doing what the others are doing. So he follows along.
In each case, people are relying on “the wisdom of the crowd” to provide the best options because that wisdom arose through or is enforced by competition. However, this creates a form of calcification. In Jenna’s case, the task — finding a meaningful or instructive use of her senior year — is replaced by conformity. In Max’s case, his need for a workable solution is subsumed to his fear of not keeping up with others.
Like civilization itself, competition is a double-edged sword. When the civilization or industry is new, people start from nothing and race to find a solution; here, competition is good. When the civilization is already established, competition becomes a way of enforcing norms on others by making them see a different task than the actual one, or fear being out of step.
Perhaps for Jenna the senior-year excursion became a time-honored process by which she engaged in the same activities as others and came to the same conclusions, foreclosing hope and opportunity. Perhaps for Max the “method” involved is wasteful, causes pollution or produces a Big Mac instead of an actually flavorful, nutritious burger.
As with most things, “magic bullets” solutions don’t exist; it requires actual intervention by a thinking being to know when to use competition, and when to use other techniques. But in a democratic society, we fear that anyone might have this kind of power, as (competitively) it puts them ahead of us; thus by our free choice we doom ourselves to repetition.