I once heard Theodore Dalrymple suggest that intellectuals, especially in pseudo-disciplines, dislike obvious truths – e.g. rioting is bad and should be stopped – because the obvious truth is a threat to a clerisy whose status depends on elucidating obscure meanings.
— Niall Gooch (@niall_gooch) May 31, 2020
This seems like an obvious truth itself. “This thing that appears good is actually bad, and vice-versa.” Countless examples from viral clickbait to Ph.D. theses have profitably used this formula. There’s an obvious incentive to portray oneself as a seer with unusual gifts of prophecy and insight. As Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations, “men are fond of paradoxes, and of appearing to understand what surpasses the comprehension of ordinary people.” But Adam Smith elucidated one of the most profound paradoxes of modernity, that self-interest pursued within a functioning market economy actually produces more beneficial results all around than a traditional insistence on a straight line between virtuous thoughts and virtuous actions. Was he a member of the “intellectual clerisy” insulting the good, intuitive sense of the common man? Probably depends on whom you ask. Ironically, or paradoxically, many of the very same people who currently think reality is more “nuanced” when it comes to the spectacle of orgiastic violence and left-wing mob rule take the exact opposite perspective when an insight like Smith’s offends their bedrock moral sensibilities. Suddenly, things are exactly what they appear to be again, and how dare you try to hoodwink us with your intellectual sophistries!
Again, nothing new under the sun. Long before social science, aphorists and moralists noted that people often act first and rationalize later. This is a bipartisan, or rather pre-partisan, phenomenon. We decide what we want to do, then invent an after-the-fact justification for it, which can be changed as necessary. It feels intuitively —and satisfyingly — true to reduce people’s behavior to squalid motives. Many of the “protestors” we see smiling exultantly as they exit the shattered windows of a department store with armfuls of goods don’t appear to be too concerned about racial justice or long-term consequences. Many of the progressive media figures offering incoherent, contradictory apologetics for the rioting, as they bravely tweet their support for the destruction of black people’s jobs and neighborhoods from their gated communities in safe suburbs, are clearly displaying the pathetic self-loathing peculiar to the guilt-ridden privileged. And yet, many people who can grasp these obvious truths seem to have difficulty grasping that “the ends justify the means” is an amoral blade which maims the hands of anyone foolish enough to seize it. Truth is always obvious right up until the moment when it threatens to thwart my impulses.
Cynicism about all professed motives would appear to be justified. But undiluted cynicism seems like a moral base constructed on quicksand. Paradox seems to be a fundamental building block of reality.
In some sense, it seems obviously true that George Floyd’s death is identical to those of other black men killed by the police in recent years. And yet, it’s also true that each one of those cases involved completely unique individuals in completely different circumstances. There is a certain abstract similarity we can notice across them all, but it does not necessarily follow that they all blossom from one actual root. This is understandably frustrating for people who want to be able to uproot “racism” or “white supremacy” or “capitalism” and thus solve the problem of white cops using lethal force against unarmed black men in one stroke. No one wants to hear that life is endless Sisyphean maintenance of chores that are never finished. No one feels passionate about an endless game of Whac-a-Mole. Is it an obvious truth or a counter-intuitive one to tell people that in many ways, there is no “progress,” just the same basic challenges and weaknesses presenting themselves over and over again, a constant struggle against inevitable entropy?
My stepson and I talk occasionally about discipline. He occasionally gets discouraged with himself and complains about lacking discipline to be able to do this or that. I usually remind him that discipline isn’t really a noun, it’s a verb. It’s not a “thing” you “get” in order to be able to act; it is the act. It’s not a certification you achieve, after which you can safely forget everything you did to get there. It needs to be renewed constantly. If you stop using your muscles, they’ll wither. If you stop being disciplined toward a goal, your discipline withers. Berating yourself for lacking discipline in general is like berating your bicep for not growing even though you’re not using it. Pick a goal and work toward it. Try to work toward it a little more today than you did yesterday. Maybe in hindsight, you’ll look back and say, “Huh, look at what I did. Maybe I had some discipline after all.” But each day, in the moment, it will always look exactly the same. “I’m tired and I’m sore and I don’t want to!” No one is ever superhuman enough to become exempt from this. You’ll have that exact same conversation with yourself no matter how much you’ve accomplished before. All you can do is try to respond with, “Don’t quit yet. Just one more try. Just a few more minutes.” And when you fail and fall short, as you inevitably will, all you can do is get up and start again. That’s life, day after day.
Much of the rhetoric of grievance is rooted in the devilishly seductive logic of aggregate thinking. The reason why it’s currently considered acceptable to say bigoted things about white people, for example, is because white people, in general, are perceived to be “winning” in some aggregate sense. This seems obviously true in some way. White people, as a monolithic group, are considered to have the lion’s share of money, power, happiness, etc., if we grant the dubious assumption that such things can be meaningfully quantified and contained within a fixed-pie. But again, this is an abstraction that entails nothing useful in the real world where individuals and particulars are what matter, not intellectual categories. When rioters beat a white store owner to a pulp in the streets of Dallas, it does not “cancel out” any past beatings of black men by white racists. Individuals are not identical, interchangeable objects from an assembly line. There is no cosmic scoreboard on which the racial arrears have been reduced. We have not moved one step closer to a state of balance wherein no one will ever want to be cruel or vicious to anyone else again because everything is finally “equal.” It has only contributed to the endless back-and-forth of eye-for-an-eye retribution. Nothing could be simpler or more obvious than the truth that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” but there is no limit to the intellectual contortions people will go through in attempting to argue otherwise. Apologists will find nuance, of course, and claim that while lamentable, these things are still understandable (“inevitable” being sometimes strongly implied). Most things, however horrific, are understandable. They’re still failures, though. You still allowed yourself to believe in the shortcut that was too good to be true, and you failed as a result. This is also an obvious truth, but “obvious” is not the same thing as “easy.”