Moral Binaries

At heart, I’m an Emotivist. Following Ayer, I don’t believe that morals (and their brethren ethics) convey more than, “I like this, and I don’t like that.” Stevenson’s Prescriptivist extension makes sense, too: “I think this is good, and so should you.”

It seems that Hilary Lawson and I share this perspective. He makes the further point, one I’ll surely adopt, that morals and ethics are effectively ‘designed’ to shut down argument and discussion. It’s akin to the parent telling the kid, “Because I said so”—or “because it’s the right thing to do”.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

I’m a moral non-cognitivist, but people have difficulty enough grasping relativism and subjectivism, so I’m only going to reference moral relativism here. As a moral relativist, right and wrong were both subjective and contextual. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. I won’t derail this with obvious examples. Once one adopts a position, they enjoy the luxury of turning off any critical thinking.

I’ll presume that morals predate religion and deities, but now that the thinking world has abandoned the notion of gods, they’ve replaced it with morals and ethics—and nature, but that’s a topic for another day. The faith-based world retains a notion of gods, but that is fraught with the same relativism of my god is right, and your god is wrong.

As Hilary notes, we’ve transferred the authority, per Nietzsche, from gods to morals in and of themselves, so it again becomes a device for the unengaged. He notes, as I do, that some absolute Truth is a fool’s errand. Echoing Donald Hoffman, what we need is fitness—what Lawson calls usefulness—, not Truth, which is inaccessible anyway—even if it did exist, which of course it doesn’t.

He cites the position Wittgenstein arrives at in his Tractatus. There is and can never be a place where language—words and symbols—intersect with ‘reality’, so the best we can do is to talk about it in a third-person sort of way.

As I consider the works of McGilchrist, it feels like Lawson is establishing moral simplicity as a left hemisphere function. Seeing beyond this is a right hemisphere activity, so that’s not promising. There seem to be few right-brain thinkers and then it comes to convincing the left-brain crowd. In a poor metaphor, the challenge is rather like trying to convey the maths of special relativity to the same crowd. They are going to tune out before they hear enough of the story. The left-brain is good at saying, ”la la la la, la la, la”.  

Without getting too far off track, a major challenge is that systems of government and laws are facile left hemisphere-dominant activities. These are people in power and influential. Rhetoricians have right hemisphere dominance, but they understand that their power depends on defending the status quo that has elevated them to where they are. As Upton Sinclair said, “’It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” This holds true for women and non-binary others.

In closing, Lawson asserts that apart from comic book supervillains, people tend to do what they believe to be good, and yet all goods are not created equally, nor all bads. And in the manner that one person’s trash is another’s treasure, one person’s good is another’s bad.

This moral discourse is not benign. It’s dangerous. I don’t want to steep this in contemporary politics, but this is being propagandised in things like the Ukraine conflict or the Covid response. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. This is divisive and creates a rift. That governments are propagating this divide is even more disconcerting, especially when they unapologetically backtrack only a few months later in the wake of people suffering economic impacts, including getting fired, for opposing a position that has turned out to be wrong and that was being asserted in the name of science and yet with little empirical support. These people are politicians and not scientists but attempting to hide behind science like a human shield, it serves to erode trust in science. Trust in science is a separate topic, so I’ll leave it there.

I recommend watching the complete video of Hilary Lawson to gain his perspective and nuance. My point is only to underscore his positions and to say that I agree. What do you think about morals? Are they a device to assert power over others, or is there something more to it than this? If not moral, then what? Leave a comment.

Not Only the Queen Is Dead

“The Queen is dead. Long live the King,” I believe it goes. There is propaganda through symbolism and spectacle. And there is detachment. Witness in this photograph of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral procession, a sea of mobile devices—black mirrors.

Audio: Podcast rendition of this page content

Are these people living in the moment? I can’t say for sure, but I am thinking they are more interested in laying claim to bragging rights that they were present (in body)—pictures or it didn’t happen, eh?—, but at the same time, they were missing the moment. Perhaps it would have been overwhelming otherwise.

I recall a Buddhist meme where a traveller was more (or as) interested in taking photographs than experiencing the moments—well before the Social Media Age. And what are photographs, except attachments to the past? As if the memory is not enough in and of itself.

I am neither a Royalist nor a Statist, yet I understand that many people are and they have emotional connexions to transitions of this nature. Some ask if the system will persist whilst others wonder if there might be changes conforming to their worldviews. Time will tell.

As for me, I am flexible. Were I Charles, I’d likely abdicate the throne and pass the sceptre to William, whom I would hope would usher the monarchy out of existence in favour of something more modern—and by modern, I mean something in the order of an anachronistic constitutional republic such as (poorly) employed by the United States of America.

Obviously, my preference would be for some autonomous syndicalist structure, but I am not holding my breath, nor do I feel that would fare much better anyway. I feel that’s just another pipe dream anyway as it involves people.

Would you look at the time? I’m off wittering again. Cheers.

Sovereign Persons

I do not wish to be either ruler or ruled

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

I have agreed with this sentiment for as long as I can remember, at least stretching back to age 10 or 12 and long before I had ever heard of the likes of Proudhon. I don’t believe that Proudhon is a big focus in the United States. I never encountered him in all of my studies from kindergarten to grad school—and I was an economics major.

In the US, disparaging Marx was always in vogue, with the off-hand remark along the lines of “Communism works on paper, but because of human nature, it can’t work in practice. And by the way, look at the Soviet Union. That’s all the proof you need.” Of course, I was left thinking that at least it worked on paper, something I can’t say with a straight face for Democracy.

For those who are familiar with Proudhon, he is likely remembered for his quote, “Property is theft!” I’ve discussed this before.

La propriété, c’est le vol!

Property is theft!

But this is a different quote: “I do not wish to be either ruler or ruled.” When I was in high school, there was a saying, lead, follow, or get out of the way. As imperfect of a metaphor as it is, I just wanted out of the way. In the world of leaders and followers, I wanted to be an advisor. In a manner—given the false dichotomy of followers and leaders—, this relegated me a de facto follower. Only I am not a follower. I not only question authority and authority figures, I question the legitimacy of their power. Not a great follower, to be sure.

I feel I am the peasant in Monty Python’s Holy Grail who tells King Arthur upon encountering him, “Well, I didn’t vote for you.” Not that voting yields some source of legitimacy. What options does one have?

Philosophically speaking, there is no justification for personal bodily autonomy. Someone just made this claim, and some others agreed. Sounds good to me, but there is no real reason to support the idea save for selfish rationale.

The science fiction staple, Star Trek, famously created a Borg where autonomy was futile. Because of our acculturation, we find this idea perhaps silly or perhaps appalling or absurd, but one is not more justifiable than another except by rhetorical devices. Yet neither is right.

Resistance is futile!

In the West, we tend to prefer a rather middle path, and perception doesn’t actually comply with reality. I think that people believe that they are more autonomous than they are. I’d be willing to argue that this is the same delusion underlying a sense of free will. Sartre might have argued that we each retain a sort of nuclear option as a last resort, but a choice between two options is hardly freedom. It sounds a lot like Sophie’s Choice (spoiler alert).

Not so come across like Hobbes, but I do feel that violence (subject to semantic distinction), or at least the potential for it, is inherent in any living system. With political and legal systems, violence just shifts from explicit to implicit, and so out of sight, out of mind.

In any case, I do not wish to be either ruler or ruled. I just want to advise. I’m an introvert. I want to be left alone. I value the benefits of society and I participate at the margins, and that’s where I prefer to remain. If the direction of the train I am on seems to be running off the tracks I’d presume it should be on, then I’ll get vocal. Otherwise, I’ll take the privilege to concentrate on cerebral and philosophical interests.

I’ll advise you to do the same.

Video: Blame and Causa Sui

In this segment, I ponder the interplay between blame and Causa Sui. I’ll discuss the implications for moral responsibility as well as legal responsibility, which are not as in sync as one might imagine they might be.

Video: Blame & Causa Sui

To the uninitiated, Western legal systems have no pretensions about being about morality or justice. Legal systems are designed to maintain power structures and the status quo. They are deontological machines, making them prime targets for automation by the machine learning associated with artificial intelligence. This would also diminish the power of rhetoric over facts to some extent. But, I am no legal scholar, and all of this will have to wait for another segment.

I recently shared a video on causa sui and the basics of blame and blameworthiness, so I want to intersect those topics here.

Peter Strawson suggested that for humans, blame is a reactive response. It’s reflexive like having your knee jerk when tapped. Essentially, his position is that if blame didn’t naturally exist, we’d have to invent it, mirroring Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him’. Of course, this is because they serve the same power control purpose.

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him

Voltaire

To be fair, blame is closer to real than God, but the point remains. Strawson’s point is also that humans are saddled with blame and it’s not going anywhere no matter how nebulous it becomes in execution. It’s natural.

To me, this starts to sound suspiciously like a naturalistic fallacy. Humans seem to selectively cherry-pick which so-called natural tendencies they choose to defend. One might use nature to argue that female sexual availability begins at menstruation, and yet we have decided to ignore this and defer this on the grounds of civility. It’s obvious that we could consider blame to be an animal instinct we want to domesticate away, but because it serves other purposes, per Strawson’s perspective, it’s a useful tool.
But what’s the causa sui challenge. Let’s quickly recapitulate.

Causa sui argues that one cannot be the cause of oneself, ex nihilo. Being full products of nature and nurture to adopt the lay parlance, any blameworthiness lies with the sources or creators. Since we are concerned with moral responsibility, we can eliminate nature forthrightly. Nature may be responsible—by many estimations approximately 40 per cent responsible—, it possesses no moral agency. And if the individual is not responsible, then we are left with the environment and society, including the social environment. Of course, the environment gets off the hook in the same manner as the genetic and hereditary factors of nature.

Before we consider society, let’s regard the individual.

Albeit the brain-as-computer is a bit facile, it’s still good enough for illustrative purposes. When you are born, your cognitive hardware is installed, as are your edge peripherals and update protocols. Any of these can become damaged through some degenerative processes, or external environmental factors, but since my interest is in optimistic rather than pessimistic scenarios, I’ll ignore these instances. Given that blameworthiness is directly related to presumed cognitive processing, factors that diminish these faculties, mitigate blameworthiness and factors than increase it, ameliorate it.

As a—quote—’normal’ child becomes an adolescent and then an adult, the probability it will become blameworthy, increases with age, ceteris paribus. A person with cognitive deficits or conditions such as aphasia or dementia decreases the probability of blame assignment. Even temporary impairment mitigates judgment—oh, she was drunk.

So, following the brain-as-computer analogy, your brain is a CPU with a self-updating cognitive operating system and instruction set. Essentially, there is also short and long-term memory.
In the case of cognitive deficits, one of these components might be effectively broken. The CPU might process too slowly; it might misinterpret what it receives; there may be issues with the sense organs or the nerves that transport signals.

I’ve got a mate who, due to medical malpractice at birth, experienced nerve damage. Although his eyes and brain are normal, his optic nerve cannot carry signals very well, effectively leaving him blind. Neither can he taste nor smell. So there’s that.

But assuming that this processing and storage hardware are intact, the causa sui constraint still applies, but let’s spend some time evaluating societal interactions.

All inputs come from society—cultures and subcultures. Apart from misinterpreted processing scenarios, if a person doesn’t receive a particular moral instruction set, that person should surely be considered to be exempt from moral blame. It may be difficult to assess whether an instruction has been input. This is a reason why children are categorically exempted: they may not have received all of the expected moral codes, they may not have been stored or effectively indexed, and their processing hardware is still in development—alpha code if you will. Brain plasticity is another attribute I won’t spend much time on, but the current state of science says that the brain is still not fully developed even by age 30, so this is certainly a mitigating factor, even if we allow leeway for the causa sui argument.

I mention subculture explicitly because the predominant culture is not the only signal source. A child raised by, I don’t know, say pirates, would have an amended moral code. I am sure we can all think of different subcultures that might undermine or come at cross odds with the dominant culture, whether hippies, religious cultists, militia groups, racial purist groups, and so on.

So, a commonly held moral in the subdominant group may counter that of the prevailing one. An example that comes to mind is some religious organisations that do not agree with human medical intervention. There have been cases where parents have allowed a child to die from an otherwise curable condition. Although in the United States, there is a claim of freedom of religion—a claim that is spotty at best—, parents or guardians in situations like these have been convicted and sentenced for following their own moral codes. But as with all people, these people are as susceptible to the limitations of causa sui as the rest of us. They are not responsible for creating themselves, but moral responsibility was asserted based on the beliefs of the prevailing culture. Even besides the legal context, persons in the larger society would likely blame the parents for their neglect—though they may be praised for being resolute in their righteousness by their in-group. This just underscores that morality is a collection of socially constructed conventions rather than something more objective.

Returning to causa sui, let’s say a person commits an act that society would typically assign blame. Rather than exercise some act of retributive justice—a concept with no foundation in a causa sui universe—the course of action was remediation. In this case, the desired moral instruction would be delivered thereby seemingly making the moral offender blameworthy. But would they be?

Presumably, (for what it’s worth) psychologists would evaluate the subject for competency in maintaining the programming. In the case of the aforementioned religious parents, they may be threatened with retribution for not abiding by the superseding rules of the prevailing power structure.

Although I might personally allow some leeway even with the causa sui in full force and effect, but I can’t say that I have much faith in the ability of humans to make a correct assessment. My impression is that any assessment would be one of convenience than something sounder.

Perhaps I’ll produce a more robust segment on retributive justice, but my feeling is that retributive justice is an area that legal systems should avoid altogether. If necessary, focus on restorative justice, rehabilitation (or ‘habilitation’ as the case might be) and quarantine models to ensure any bad actors are contained away from society. Again, this puts individuals at the mercy of cultures they find themselves a part of. I am not going to delve into this any further save to remind the listener of gang initiation schemes where a person needs to kill a member of a rival gang to become a trusted member. This is their moral code—quite at odds with the mainstream.

So there you have it. Owing to causa sui constraints, a person cannot be ultimately responsible for their actions. My primary thesis is—apart from metaphorical equipment failures—that any moral responsibility falls wholly on the society or culture. Full stop. And this isn’t as foreign as one might first feel. Although for most people blame is natural, in an individualistic society, people are interested in finding the culprit. In collectivist cultures, any culprit might do. Perhaps I’ll share some stories in a future segment.
Meantime, what are your thoughts on moral responsibility? Can someone be ultimately responsible? Some have said the ‘ultimate responsibility’ is a philosophical red herring and that we can still hold someone responsible, even if not in the ultimate sense, which causa sui disallows. Are you more in this camp? Is this enough to mete out so-called retributive justice? For me, retributive justice is a euphemism for vengeance, and justice is a weasel word. But that’s just me, and perhaps a topic for another segment.

Are there any topics you’d like me to cover? Leave a comment below.

Hierarchies and Meritocracy

Jordan Peterson and Russell Brand chat for about 12 minutes on sex differences and personality, but that’s not where I want to focus commentary. What I will say is that Peterson continually conflates sex and gender, and I find that disconcerting for a research psychologist.

I’ve queued this video near the end, where Peterson delineates his conception of how the political right and left (as defined by him and the US media-industrial complex).

I feel he does a good job of defining the right, and he may have even captured whatever he means by left—radical left even—, but he doesn’t capture my concerns, hence I write.

To recap his positions,

Premises

  • We need to pursue things of value
  • Hierarchies are inevitable
  • [One has] to value things in order to move forward in life
  • [One has] to value things in order to have something valuable to produce
  • [One has] to value some things more than others or [they] don’t have anything like beauty or strength or…competence or…whatever…
  • If [one] value[s] [some domain] then [one is] going to value some [things in that domain] more than others because some are better
  • If [one] play[s] out the value in a social landscape, a hierarchy [will result]
  • A small number of people are going to be more successful than the majority
  • A very large number of people aren’t going to be successful at all

Conservative (Right)

  • Hierarchies are justifiable and necessary

Left

  • Hierarchies … stack [people] up at the bottom
  • [Hierarchies] tilt towards tyranny across time

Critique

I feel I’ve captured his position from the video transcript, but feel free to watch the clip to determine if I’ve mischaracterised his position. I have reordered some of his points for readability and for a more ordered response on my part.

To be fair, I feel his delivery is confused and the message becomes ambiguous, so I may end up addressing the ‘wrong’ portion of his ambiguous statement.

We need to pursue things of value

This is sloganeering. The question is how are we defining value? Is it a shared definition? How is this value measured? How are we attributing contribution to value? And do we really need to pursue these things?

Hierarchies are inevitable

Hierarchies may be inevitable, but they are also constructed. They are not natural. They are a taxonomical function of human language. Being constructed, they can be managed. Peterson will suggest meritocracy as an organising principle, so we’ll return to that presently.

[One has] to value things in order to move forward in life

This is a particular worldview predicated on the teleological notion of progress. I’ve discussed elsewhere that all movement is not progress, and perceived progress is not necessarily progress on a global scale.

Moreover, what one values may not conform with what another values. In practice, what one values can be to the detriment of another, so how is this arbitrated or mediated?

[One has] to value things in order to have something valuable to produce

I think he is trying to put this into an economic lens, but I don’t know where he was going with this line. Perhaps it was meant to emphasise the previous point. I’ll just leave it here.

[One has] to value some things more than others or [they] don’t have anything like beauty or strength or…competence or…whatever…

This one is particularly interesting. Ostensibly, I believe he is making the claim that we force rank individual preferences, then he provides examples of items he values: beauty, strength, competence, and whatever. Telling here is that he chooses aesthetic and unmeasurable items that are not comparable across group members and are not even stable for a particular individual. I won’t fall down the rabbit hole of preference theory, but this is a known limitation of that theory.

If [one] value[s] [some domain] then [one is] going to value some [things in that domain] more than others because some are better

We’ve already touched on most of this concept. The key term here is ‘better‘. Better is typically subjective. Even in sports, where output and stats are fairly well dimensionalised, one might have to evaluate the contributions of a single athlete versus another with lower ‘output’ but who serves as a catalyst for others. In my mental model, I am thinking of a person who has higher arbitrary stats than another on all levels versus another with (necessarily) lower stats but who elevates the performance (hence) stats of teammates. This person would likely be undervalued (hence under-compensated) relative to the ‘star’ performer.

In other domains, such as art, academics, or even accounting and all measurement bets are off.

If [one] play[s] out the value in a social landscape, a hierarchy [will result]

Agreed, but the outcome will be based on rules—written and unwritten.

A small number of people are going to be more successful than the majority

Agreed.

A very large number of people aren’t going to be successful at all

Agreed

Conclusion

The notion of meritocracy is fraught with errors, most notably that merit can be meaningfully assessed in all but the most simple and controlled circumstances. But societies and cultures are neither simple nor controlled. They are complex organisms. And as Daniel Kahneman notes, most merit can likely be chalked up to luck, so it’s all bullshit at the start.

In the end, Peterson and people like him believe that the world works in a way that it doesn’t. They believe that thinking makes it so and that you can get an is from an ought. Almost no amount of argument will convince them otherwise. It reminds me of the time Alan Greenspan finally admitted to the US Congress that his long-held adopted worldview was patently wrong.

Video: CSPAN: Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman and Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan Testimony

WAXMAN: “You found a flaw…”

GREENSPAN: “In the reality—more in the model—that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.”

WAXMAN: “In other words, you found that your your view of the world—your ideology—was not right. It was not what it had it…”

GREENSPAN: “Precisely. No, I… That’s precisely the reason I was shocked because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”

To paraphrase musically

Video: Social Distortion, I Was Wrong

Violence and Rules

I haven’t yet shared my thoughts that equate bureaucracy with violence, but this is somewhat tangential or perhaps orthogonal.

Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination. The nature of these rules allows violence to be inflicted on violence and the resurgence of new forces that are sufficiently strong to dominate those in power. Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalised; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose. The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing these rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them; controlling this complex mechanism, they will make it function so as to overcome the rulers through their own rules.

Michel Foucault, Nietzsche, Genealogy, History 1977

Taking holiday, so taking shortcuts in posting. Here, Foucault discusses Nietzsche.

Supernatural

There is a battle being waged in the United States today, but it is not centred on the lack of separation of Church and State. I suppose this may be a uniquely American issue given its Constitutional roots, but the root cause is rather a lack of separation between Natural and Supernatural, not between Church and State.

Tomorrow America is celebrating Independence Day [sic], but until we are independent of religion, we cannot be independent. The only real independence is for the politicians who are independent of British control. There is nothing more substantial than this, and nothing for the ordinary citizen, who might as well be taking orders from England. Canada doesn’t look any worse for the wear and tear. I’m not a Monarchist, but it’s no less ridiculous than the Oligarchy or Plutarchy in play today.

I’ve got nothing again churches, per se. I don’t prefer the brainwashing that passes as organised religion, but neither am I fond of the brainwashing that is organised politics. And why is it called ‘brainwashing’? It’s clearly mind-muddling. I digress.

I do believe that it’s in the best interest to separate Church and State, not least because I need freedom from religion. It is already force-fed down my throat and codified into laws. We need less, not more.

Of course, a key topical debate is the abortion issue. This is strictly a religious issue. Even if you want to argue that it’s a moral rather than religious issue, it is still the result of supernatural beliefs. This is where the separation needs to happen.

Why won’t it happen? It won’t happen because people who believe in supernatural forces—especially active supernatural forces—are easy to manipulate. This has been true historically as well as contemporaneously. It’s too convenient for politicians to pull the old Santa Claus trick—if you aren’t good, Santa won’t give you any presents; and if you’re bad, he’s going to bring you coal instead.

I’ve said my peace. In the end, I don’t really even care if you believe in the supernatural, but if you believe that you (or anyone) can interpret these forces, I claim foul and out of bounds. This belief is not different to believing that you can understand what your dog or cat is ‘saying’—or your pet unicorn in the garden. It’s certifiable.

I know that other countries have to contend with this interference. Some even don’t mind the union. Is this a problem in other countries? Is it a problem in yours? Or do you consider it to be a necessary solution?

DISCLAIMER: This post has absolutely nothing to do with the Supernatural television series.

Political Spectrum

I am trying to avoid commenting on the recent SCOTUS decision and how it is symptomatic of how the United States remains a failed state—at least a zombie state—, so this preamble should suffice for now.

I was chatting politics into the wee hours with my son, who’s been on this earth for almost 25 years now. I consider myself to be on the left of traditional political scales. He considers himself to be on the right, but he’s trying to make sense of the scales and dimensions. He had two questions: First, ‘What are the crucial dimensions and positions that define left and right?’ Second, ‘Where do Liberals fit into the equation?’

Knowing me, he wanted to provide some context and confer with me his knowledge that would also serve to frame and anchor the conversation. A key point was to have clarified the adopted nomenclature and positioning on a theoretical map.

We started with the origins of the left-right distinction, which was barely a valid dichotomy even as it was coined in France. There was no duolith. Those on the left or right had features in common but taken holistically, this was a reductionist categorisation, as tends to happen. Exacerbating this, as it does today, still, the politicians with voices remained to the right of the unvoices masses.

He asked about the difference between freedom and liberty because his sources differentiate the two. Whilst connotation and nuance may enter the picture, etymologically speaking, freedom is a native English word whilst liberty is French via Latin. Connotatively, freedom is an absolute measure whilst liberty is granted within a political framework. Positive and negative liberties aside, liberty is an attenuator. It restricts freedom even if it allows most of the signal through. Effectively, liberty is permission by the state to act in certain ways.

By the end of the conversation, he was framing the key difference around notions of national identity and nationalism—I versus we. I shared my thoughts on the construction of identity, thus making for a poor foundation, though we both agreed that national narratives have been the impetus for much activity. (I am reluctant to insert the word progress here.)

After our conversation, I began researching dimensions established or otherwise proposed by political science. This led me to a place I found interesting—the distinction between radical, progressive, conservative, and reactionary positions. For some reason, this never really occurred to me.

I’m not sure one can employ these terms in general discussion without definition and qualification, but I feel they are useful in their own right. Typically, I view the political landscape—at the highest level and with a US-bent—as Left (communists, socialists, anarchists, progressives) and Right (conservatives, liberals, and fascists). I also know that this is imprecise, but maps always are.

This new vocabulary helps by distilling the map to this—ordered differently:

  • Right
    • Conservative
    • Reactionary
  • Left
    • Progressive
    • Radical

Conservative

Conservatives want to maintain the status quo. This is interesting usage adoption. Fundamentally, advocates of this view want to promote and to preserve traditional social institutions and practices. In Western culture, conservatives seek to preserve a range of institutions such as organized religion, parliamentary government, and property rights. Conservatives tend to favour institutions and practices that guarantee stability and evolved gradually. Adherents of conservatism often oppose progressivism and seek a return to traditional values

In Western culture, conservatives seek to preserve a range of institutions such as organized religion, parliamentary government, and property rights.

My first thoughts when I hear the term are a harkening back to the old ways—the Ozzie and Harriott mythos, white picket fences, Mom and apple pie. But this is different. Effectively, rather than reaching back, it wants to preserve the current moment in time. Where it gets more nebulous, I think, is that some people include nostalgia in the now. Duratively, perhaps a person might remember some aspect of their childhood. Though this has been lost by now, they imagine it as part of their identity. This can also extend further back as they wish some other historical aspects can be cherry-picked. Perhaps the white conservative wishes to be able to subjugate women as was the practice in the 1950s of America, but to not conserve high union participation and high marginal tax rates, as affronts to freedom (or whatever). This ends up being an exercise in selective memory and revisionist history-making.

This needs to be distinguished from a so-called traditional conservativism in the tradition of Burke or Hobbes, who want to conserve some sense of fundamental morality they feel derives from nature.

Reactionary

Reactionaries oppose whatever is in effect at the moment—the petulant toddler—but with a twist. Like the conservatives, there is a conservation effort but rather than a focus on the status quo, the focus is on status quo ante, which is a return to the old ways, tried and true.

Progressive

Progressives support social reform. Ostensibly, they don’t oppose tradition, but they feel that old structures need to be reimagined and reinterpreted in face of social and technological change. An underlying metanarrative is the notion of progress. I am not going to comment on progressivism generally and the nuances evident in the American flavour of it.

Radical

Radical politics denotes the intent to transform or replace the fundamental principles of a society or political system, often through social changestructural changerevolution or radical reform

During the 20th century, radical politicians took power in many countries across the world. Such radical leaders included Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin in Russia, Mao Zedong in China, Adolf Hitler in Germany, as well as more mainstream radicals such as Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. Of course, Donald Trump is a more recent example in the United States.

Summary

To me, these terms operate on a gravity to now. Conservatives are heavily anchored in the familiar and seek stability. Then they see factors in the past that they imagine will also serve this purpose, so they wish to incorporate these and carry them forward. Conservatives are not unaware of the need for change, they just want to not create waves in the process.

Likewise, although placing a heavier weight on the past than even conservatives, reactionaries are not fundamentally opposed to retaining what is working currently. The term working is subjective and perspectival, so they may wish to retain something that works for them at the expense of others. This is a challenge for conservatism as well. Just because racial segregation seemed to work for an equivalent person in the past doesn’t mean it worked well for the excluded.

Like reactionaries, progressives aren’t afraid of keeping a foot in the present—and there may be plenty of lessons to learn from the past—, but they feel that given the change in the underlying terrain, some refactoring is in order.

And then there are the radicals. I suppose that radicals have different motivators, but in essence, they feel that the current implementation is substantially broken, and it needs more than a few small tweaks and a fresh coat of paint. These people are renovating rather than redecorating. They may even want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Some may wish to keep the baby.

As for me, I usually place myself in the Progressive camp, but under the definition, I am more of a radical. The system is broken. We don’t just need to delete it, we need to install a new one.

Thomas Jefferson said that the United States should rewrite the Constitution every 19 years. Why 19 years? Who knows? Given the intransigence in American politics, this would have been a disaster. And given the powers that be, the debate would be over which parts to conserve and which to progress. Being the cynic that I am, my guess is that it would devolve to worse than we have now.

DISCLAIMER: For the record, I don’t endorse the placement of the political ideologies on the horseshoe image, but I find it interesting and it grabbed my attention. I hope it grabbed yours, too.

Agency Is Dead

Agency is going through the same fits as religion. When Nietzsche regarded society around him at the time, he declared that God is dead and asked now what? This is precisely the same challenge in different clothes.

Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.

Dan Dennett

Without a God to use as a bully pulpit and mechanism of fear, how could we keep people in line in cohesive societies? Without the notion of human agency to allow for responsibility and blame, how can we keep people in line in cohesive societies? Only the predicate has changed, but the question remains, do we persist in lying for the so-called greater good? This is similar to the Santa Claus myth to keep young children in line.

If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do.  Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.

—Dan Dennett, “Reflections on Free Will” (naturalism.org)

One might like to think that lying is psychologically pathological, but it seems to be a significant part of the human condition. The fundamental question doesn’t appear to be ‘should I tell the truth’, but rather ‘Can I get away with lying?’ Despite all the talk of Truth and integrity, this seems to be the default state of humans. This renders integrity just another lie. But you knew that already, but let’s not fall into another Foucauldian rabbit hole.

We no longer have any sympathy today with the concept of ‘free will’: we know only too well what is is — the most infamous of all the arts of the theologian for making mankind ‘accountable’. . . Everywhere accountability is sought, it is usually the instinct         for punishing and judging which seeks it… the doctrine of will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is of finding guilty.

Twilight of the Idols: ‘The Four Great Errors’, 7
Appropriate Graphic

Incidental Racism

I am a racist. Well, to the extent that there is only one extant human race but some choose to construct races out of ethnicities, skin colour, and other allele expressions, I am a racist. It’s difficult to escape the distinction that the perpetrators and targets or victims of these fabricated races.

The haters need to create a target group to feel superior over. The do-gooders need to be able to identify groups who have been harmed or historically underserved. Of course, there is a right way and then there’s this wrong way. In a manner of speaking, it’s an easier effort to broad-brush people into race categories. No mind that they have no basis in biology or in science more broadly. These people have issues with science, mainly because they don’t feel fully included in their designation as soft scient and social science. They get pretty defensive when they get called out as pseudoscience, but if the shoe fits. Playing these race games only underscores the pseudoscience charge.

All of this said—or by this tepid definition—, I am a racist. Here’s why.

I am a racist

When I see a person from a designated group, I consciously reflect: that’s a human who’s been identified as an other—sort of like an endangered species, they need to be protected. Sure they can protect themselves, but they need assistance. Besides, they deserve extra attention because of so many centuries of not only neglect but of malice. Perhaps not that person in particular, but since we’re broad-brushing.

Where my racism comes into play is that I’ll smile and nod; I’ll engage in phatic exchange; I’ll hold a door; I’ll recognise them as a person—as a human; I’ll feel a slight boost of empathy and compassion. I’ll see this person as different, whereas without this constructed designation, I’d only see another person. But I’ve been instructed to see them as different.

Growing up around Boston in the 1970s, a time of desegregation and forced bussing, my best friend was a negro. That’s how we labelled blacks or African-Americans or whatever the latest label is. He was very aware of his colour. We’d joke about it as kids tend to do. He was coloured. I was a cracker. To us, his colour (or race, if you prefer) meant nothing to us.

My family were racist, though they’d deny it. To them, Lenny, my friend, wasn’t an individual. He was a part of that larger race construct. Sure, he was an individual, too. He was my friend who played baseball with me and shot hoops in the driveway. But to me as a child, race didn’t yet exist. I hadn’t yet been indoctrinated into the race nonsense. Lenny may have experienced things differently.

Don’t get me wrong, looking back, Lenny did conform to racial stereotypes. His dad was an absent parent, an alcoholic shipworker, who spent more time at the shipyard and in bars. I barely even saw him. His mum was a large woman, who was very nice to me but was frustrated with her lot in life and the lack of emotional support from her husband.

Lenny was the youngest of three brothers, but he had a younger sister, Karen. His brothers were high school basketball stars, as it were, in a suburb. Tookey was the oldest and tallest. His given name was Raymond, but only his parents called him Ray. Steve* was also a football star, who went on to play at Boston University during the Doug Flutie years.

It wasn’t until I joined the military that I learned about race. This was mainly about the people of colour who had joined the military owning to economic necessity and the promise of a better life. This outlook was not unique to what we now refer to as BIPOC. The majority of enlisted personnel were victims of the system they at least tacitly believed in. If I were to be so bold, I’d say there were two flavours, the bitter and the hopeful. I won’t elaborate further.

Eventually, I moved to Los Angeles and was steeped in Hispanic/Latino culture—primarily from Mexico and Central America. Again, I was an observer. I participated with people connected to this culture. I don’t particularly abide by any culture. I don’t view it as important, but this also means that I have no culture to defend either. Maybe that’s a significant difference. If I’ve got no cultural ego to defend, then I am not threatened by other cultures that I might feel as encroaching.

Don’t get me wrong. Whilst I tolerate cultural expression and say ‘to each their own‘, I do find traditional clothing and rituals to be silly or quaint. But so do I find some of this silly in what would be said to be my cultural heritage, whether ethnically to Norway or nationally to the United States. I’ll spare the commentary.

I picked up enough conversational Spanish to get by—mostly phatic speech and politesse—, so if I am interacting with a Spanish speaker, I will use what words I know: gracias, de nada, compromiso, desculpa, por favor, and even pendejo doesn’t go to waste. I’ve also been known to utter merci, danke, spasibo, xièxiè nǐ, or domo arrigato (mister roboto, cuz let’s be honest here).

This is my racism or my sensitivity to culture. To be honest—and why not be honest, am I right?—, this has not always been without controversy. Arbitrarily, I might spam gracias, merci, or domo to a whitebread American. In most instances, they’ll nod and acknowledge the intent and accept it or respond with no problem, you’re welcome, or even de nada or de rien. I’ve even gotten a German bitte in response to a domo, so I suppose I am not alone.

I think it’s safe to say that most Americans know what grazie or merci mean. Perhaps not domo. In one encounter, I said domo to a non-Japanese Asian and was immediately derided with an I’m not Japanese. From her perspective, she may have felt that she had been homogenised into being Asian and she wanted to be identified as whatever her heritage was. She never shared this information with me. Perhaps she was Korean or Cambodian, Vietnamese or Laotian, Chinese or whatever. But she did communicate that she wasn’t Japanese. She might have been under the impression that from my perspective, I saw that all Asians look alike.

From my perspective, I could have as alternatively exchanged a merci. This would not have likely triggered the same emotional response—I’m not French. On the one hand, I felt bad for triggering her—despite that not having been my intent. On the other hand, I didn’t feel I needed to engage her free-floating rage. So I’m a racist.

In my own defence, studies show that people are more able to discern people within their own ethnicity. I’ve shared this story before. When I lived in Tokyo, I was dating a woman whose dad was Japanese and her mum was Chinese. I had met her once, and I was to meet her at a train station. I’d be lying if I told you I had no trepidation about not being able to recognise her in a crowd. My, perhaps narcissistic, consolation was that she’d recognise me being taller and ‘Caucasian’. I can’t really say ‘whiter’ because although I was brought up to identify Asians as yellow (and Indigenous Americans as red), most Japanese were a lighter shade of pale than I (or most so-called ‘white’ Americans) were. I’ve always been suspicious of these colour attributes, but I won’t go even further down this rabbit hole.

In the end, I see colour. I see the history.

In the end, I see colour. I see the history. Even though my family didn’t even move to the United States until World War II, somewhat exempting me from culpability, I still recognise the injustice that still prevails. With empathy, I want things to be better—to be more inclusive—, but cultural homogenisation is not the approach I support. I support tolerance.

If I feel that a certain costume is silly, so be it. I don’t have to wear it. When I was growing up in the 1970s, I felt that my own clothing options were silly—polyester and bellbottoms? No thank you. This is just a preference thing. I don’t like to wear headcovers—hats or caps. Do I care if you wear a headcover? No. Might I think you look silly? Sometimes. Do you want to know what else I think looks silly? Beards? What’s even worse? Moustaches—or as I am more apt to call them, pornstaches. Am I going to judge you are being less of a person because of any of these? No. I could go on and on about my reaction to certain accoutrements, but I’ll let you in on a secret: I have worked and interacted with people who prefer to present themselves in these ways, and these people have risen to the occasion and disappointed in the same ratio as people who dressed like me or looked more like me, so clearly it’s not a factor.

In summary—and despite the fact that there is only one human race—, I admit to being a racist. I do recognise that negative and positive stereotypes exist, as well as I know that these are vague generalisations. I know white people who can dance and Asians who suck at maths. I know Mexicans who aren’t gardeners and Italians who couldn’t cook to save their lives. I even know black people who can swim—but not my friend Lenny; he can’t swim. Sometimes stereotypes happen to encapture a person.


* As I was writing this, I decided to perform a Google search for Lenny. We lost contact decades ago because he adopted Jehova’s Witness religious beliefs that didn’t allow him to socialise with persons outside of his religion, so we parted ways. But I did locate Steve. I reached out to Steve on LinkedIn. Unless I’m mistaken, we probably haven’t communicated with each other since 1978—that’s 44 years— when he went off to college. I always admired Steve, the way we sometimes admire our big brothers. Steve was Lenny’s big brother, and Lenny looked up to both of his big brothers.

Steve responded on LinkedIn. We exchanged best wishes. Maybe one day I’ll ask him about his experience with race. It doesn’t seem to be a topic one can engage in because of the lack of shared perspective and the hot button triggers just waiting to be tripped.