We all want to know: are we on the wrong path, as a species, and if so, what is the one mistake we’re making?
My answer: we treat the world as a subset of ourselves, as if we were Gods, when really we are a subset of the world.
This reversal creates a reversal in our ability to see cause and effect. Where humans are concerned, the cause is always external so it’s not their fault. Criminals are in jail because they got a bad start in life; people are poor because an injustice happened; if a baby dies, it’s an injustice; it’s always good to save lives.
This culminates in a twofold illusion that’s central to modern thinking:
That conflict avoidance has two benefits — first, I am not responsible for whatever disasters are going on outside my door; second, no one can tell me what to do.
In this sense, we’ve reversed cause and effect from “Person X does Y task and gets Z result from the world at large” to “Person X got Z done to them by the world while trying to do Y.” The person is never to blame.
The root of this pattern is conflict avoidance. In order to keep society together, we need rules; if those rules demand anything from us except that we show up for work and don’t murder, rape, arson, etc., there’s going to be conflict. Conflict endangers us when we try to stop others from doing crazy things; it also upsets us when others are able to criticize us when we’re doing crazy things.
So we decide on a society of the rule of no rules, agree to disagree, make war to keep the peace, kill the messenger to avoid conflict, and so on. It’s a great denial conspiracy, with all of us pretending we’re “enlightened” and “intelligent” for not interrupting behavior that, five steps down the line, causes criminal neglect or destruction.
I call this philosophy of no-philosophy “Crowdism,” because it unites individuals into a Crowd hellbent on keeping others from criticizing those individuals. Here’s a statement of it from my least favorite source in the universe:
“Don’t be a dick” is the fundamental rule of all total social spaces. Every other policy for getting along is a special case of it.
No definition of being a dick has been provided. This is deliberate. If a significant number of reasonable people suggest, whether bluntly or politely, that you are being a dick, the odds are good that you are not entirely in the right.
Being right about an issue does not mean you’re not being a dick! Dicks can be right â€” but they’re still dicks; if there’s something in what they say that is worth hearing, it goes unheard, because no one likes listening to dicks. It doesn’t matter how right they are.
One can be perfectly civil and follow every rule of etiquette and still be a dick.
Telling someone â€œDon’t be a dickâ€ is usually a dick-move â€” especially if itâ€™s true. It upsets the other person and it reduces the chance that theyâ€™ll listen to what you say.
This document is written in cleverese (the international language of hipsters), which gets around the fact that this open definition works one way: if others object, you are obviously the dick, so you are the problem. Keep the peace at all costs. Avoid conflict by punishing the messenger.
The problem with this philosophy is this: it removes an obligation to truth, to reality, and to the whole, and replaces it with person-to-person social factors. Am I offended? Then he’s wrong, even if he’s right; he’s a dick, even if he’s polite; he’s bad, even if what he says will ultimately produce good.
In other words, we’ve placed our own feelings before our ability to adapt to reality, which is the eternal pitfall of having big brains: we can delude ourselves by altering our memories and expectations of the world, and we won’t catch on because the consequences will take a long time to manifest themselves, and then we’ll be in denial.
You’re asking — what does this matter in the real world? — and I’ll tell you:
Yep, if you leave it up to human individuals, they’ll decide that very complex decisions come down to a binary: are you being a dick, or not?
They’ll then band together in a group and punish “dicks,” which includes both those accused of witchcraft and those who point out the failings of anything popular with the Crowd. And that’s what they’ve come: a lynch mob, a revenge crowd, a roving band of do-nothings looking for someone else to blame for their problems.
This is why we say that all human problems boil down to individual irresponsibility and moral inattention. While this mob is forming, the middle classes are dozing, happily stuffed with cheap food, cheap cable TV, lots of booze and cheap pot, and new products from Costco and Target every weekend.
But this wafflemaker plays a song as it bakes your waffles! Can we have it Daddy, please? Parents space out, caught between job responsibilities and the impossibility of explaining why things are stupid ideas to children who know only their needs, right now, and demands. They relax on that moral attention, and decide to not be dicks, and ignore all of the stupid stuff going on around them even if it means their children will inherit a mess. Maybe that’s the high cost of that wafflemaker, kid.
As I’ve gotten more experienced in life, I’ve realized that while some conservatives are infected with Crowdism, for the most part Crowdism is a mental virus that seizes liberals — all liberals. The basic idea of liberalism is the freedom of the individual, not just from other individuals and government, but from obligation to ideas and laws of reality. If liberalism doesn’t start out that way, like classical liberalism, it decays to that low level quickly, because by basing it on the individual, we have provided a one-way path to greater demands from the individual and no way of saying “no,” because that would impose what we call “control.”
Yet we’re just as controlled by those rules saying we can’t tell people “no.” Crowdism, after all, is as much a control system for reigning in the individual as totalitarianism is; it’s just while totalitarianism requires armed police, Crowdism just sets a lynch mob on anyone who says anything unpopular.
The traditional left-right dichotomy suggests that we have two basic choices: either we are controlled by government, or we abolish government for control of other individuals by individuals. However, there’s a hidden third option, which is that instead of making it either bureaucratic or personal, we opt for mutual allegiance to agreed-upon values, or “culture.”
When our cultural values say it is improper to dump toxic waste in rivers, we may not even need law enforcement; people feel fine “being a dick” in that instance. If our cultural values say it is foolish to spend your money on entertainment if your children are starving and you blame the government, people who behave that way will be regarded as deceptive. If our cultural values say that we treat everyone fairly, and some rise higher than others, and we won’t fight over that because we are committed to making the system fair, we end the seemingly endless class wars.
This idea of culture, despite appearances, is a way of “sacralizing” or “making holy” the world as a whole. Instead of focusing on ourselves as things-in-themselves which deserve importance, we are means to an end — we are media through which patterns move, and the best of those patterns lead to good results. This does not mean we throw ourselves away, but that our focus includes self and world as a whole, as guided by a shared values system which points out how life is non-random, how good behaviors are rewarded, and how bad behaviors must be curtailed. We know if we do well we will be rewarded, and that the only measure of well is how the patterns of our behavior stack up to the patterns the world rewards.
Sacralization and shared value is the only alternative to control. Otherwise, either you get authoritarian-derived systems, where government agencies have massive amounts of power and all solutions are bureaucratic, or anarchy-derived systems, where individuals are not held accountable and enforce prevailing trends, social notions and pretense of self-importance upon one another and are only regulated when they visibly murder, kidnap, etc.
Sacralization would help us avoid the following travesty:
According to Mercy for Animals, male chicks are of no use to the industry because they can’t lay eggs and don’t grow large or quickly enough to be raised profitably for meat. That results in the killing of 200 million male chicks a year.
The United Egg Producers, a trade group for U.S. egg farmers, confirmed that figure and the practice behind it.
“There is, unfortunately, no way to breed eggs that only produce female hens,” said the group’s spokesman, Mitch Head. “If someone has a need for 200 million male chicks, we’re happy to provide them to anyone who wants them. But we can find no market, no need.”
Using a grinder, Head said, “is the most instantaneous way to euthanize chicks.”
This is horrific and insane, yet no one is going to be able to suggest a better solution — unless we have a reason besides profit and public opinion to do so. If we sacralize, or make holy, the world, the idea of tossing chicks in a blender will seem wasteful and pointless, and we’ll work around it to another option, such as using roosters for another purpose. Even more, and this addresses the fears of the corporations in this case, the value will be shared, so no single company will break ranks and start liquefying male chicks just to get an edge in operating costs.
Scary as it is, the same forces that we think will liberate us… actually enslave us. And the forces that we thought were too scary at first may indeed be our liberation, although that liberation may not mean “100% free to do anything we want” but “75% free to do anything we want.” Might be a worthwhile trade, if you can get past the advertiser-inculcated fear of trading 100% for 75% with better long-term consequences, much as you might buy an all-steel spatula for $15 instead of a plastic one for $5, knowing the steel one will last for twenty years.
Liberalism and conservatism are each axes on the graph of political placement; one side wants the individual, the other wants shared values. But that graph doesn’t consider the methods they would use. This is why liberalism and conservatism cross over periodically: the hidden values axis in politics is the bureaucratic-anarchy axis. Conservatives want to conserve values, but by which method — a strong government, or libertarian-style natural selection that allows strong social forces to select those they want in the prosperous communities? Liberals want to liberate the individual from restraints, but it’s tempting to get Stalinesque and use government to do that, while others believe that dropping into near-anarchy will perpetuate their cause the best because it is most popular among the majority, who have no experience in leadership or making decisions where long-term consequences must be considered.
That’s how we get this lovely speech, completely ignored now, from everyone’s favorite liberal:
No one disputes that America has lasting and important interests in the Persian Gulf, or that Iraq poses a significant challenge to U.S. interests. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein’s regime is a serious danger, that he is a tyrant, and that his pursuit of lethal weapons of mass destruction cannot be tolerated. He must be disarmed.
He doesn’t sound very liberal there. He sounds like a Republican! But in times of fear, people swing toward overt control; in times of no fear, they swing toward covert control, because it’s easy enough to not be a dick, and therefore ignore what your neighbors do, in exchange for them ignoring what you do, even if one or both of you causes negative social consequences later on.
From that example, you can see the problem of control-based societies, which come in two types — the bureaucratic and the anarchistic, regardless of whether you’re Left or Right — in that they ultimately encourage allegiance to the symbol of correctness, to the bureaucracy itself, and not to the goals it is supposed to achieve. It’s like “technically” washing your hands quickly (as a kid) instead of taking time to achieve the goal of having clean hands before dinner. We can always game the system, and control systems encourage gaming.
Sacralization avoids these problems, which is why the Crowd, the callow parts of industry, the weak parts of government, and every person who lacks confidence or knows they’re up to something shady is against it. The future belongs to a conflict between those converging on means of sacralization — religion, heritage, national identity, philosophy — versus those still caught in the twentieth century, trying to choose which method of control they like best.