A hermit does not threaten human society, of which he is at most the living critique.
The vagabond steals and scrounges. The rebel-of-the-moment declaims on TV. The anarchist dreams of destroying the society in which he conceals himself. Today’s hacker plots the collapse of virtual citadels in his bedroom. The anarchist tinkers with his bombs in saloons, while the hacker arms his programs at his computer, but both need the society they deplore and target for its destruction — which is their raison d’être.
The hermit stays off to one side in polite refusal, like a guest who, with a gentle gesture, declines the proffered dish. If society disappeared, the hermit would go on living as a hermit. Those in revolt against society, however, would find themselves technically out of work. The hermit does not oppose, but espouses a way of life. He seeks not to denounce a lie, but to find a truth. He is physically inoffensive and is tolerated as if he belonged to an intermediate order, a caste halfway between barbarians and civilized people. The chivalrous hero of the twelfth-century epic poem Yvain, the Knight with the Lion, driven mad by the loss of his lady love, wanders naked in a forest until he is taken in and cared for by a hermit, who restores his reason and leads him back to civilization. The hermit: a passeur, a go-between of worlds.
The results of the study: introspection is not reliable. When we soul-search, we contrive the findings.
The belief that reflection leads to truth or accuracy is called the introspection illusion. This is more than sophistry. Because we are so confident of our beliefs, we experience three reactions when someone fails to share our views. Response 1: Assumption of ignorance. The other party clearly lacks the necessary information. If he knew what you knew, he would be of the same opinion. Reaction 2: Assumption of idiocy. The other person has the necessary information, but his mind is underdeveloped. He cannot draw the obvious conclusions. In other words, he’s a moron. Response 3: Assumption of malice. Your counterpart has the necessary information — he even understands the debate — but he is deliberately confrontational. He has evil intentions. This is how many religious leaders and followers treat disbelievers: if they don’t agree, they must be servants of the devil!
In conclusion: nothing is more convincing than your own beliefs. We believe that introspection unearths genuine self-knowledge. Unfortunately, introspection is, in large part, fabrication posing two dangers: first, the introspection illusion creates inaccurate predictions of future mental states. Trust your internal observations too much and for too long, and you might be in for a very rude awakening. Second, we believe that our introspections are more reliable than those of others, which creates an illusion of superiority. Remedy: be all the more critical with yourself. Regard your internal observations with the same scepticism as claims from some random person. Become your own toughest critic.
The Pope asked Michelangelo: ‘Tell me the secret of your genius. How have you created the statue of David, the masterpiece of all masterpieces?’ Michelangelo’s answer: ‘It’s simple. I removed everything that is not David.’
Let’s be honest. We don’t know for sure what makes us successful. We can’t pinpoint exactly what makes us happy. But we know with certainty what destroys success or happiness. This realisation, as simple as it is, is fundamental: Negative knowledge (what not to do) is much more potent than positive knowledge (what to do).
Thinking more clearly and acting more shrewdly means adopting Michelangelo’s method: don’t focus on David. Instead, focus on everything that is not David and chisel it away. In our case: eliminate all errors and better thinking will follow.
The Greeks, Romans and medieval thinkers had a term for this approach: via negativa. Literally the negative path, the path of renunciation, of exclusion, of reduction. Theologians were the first to tread the via negativa: we cannot say what God is, we can only say what God is not. Applied to the present day: we cannot say what brings us success. We can pin down only what blocks or obliterates success. Eliminate the downside, the thinking errors, and the upside will take care of itself. This is all we need to know.
We are incredibly well informed yet we know incredibly little. Why? Because two centuries ago, we invented a toxic form of knowledge called ‘news’. News is to the mind what sugar is to the body: appetising, easy to digest — and highly destructive in the long run.
…In the past twelve months, you have probably consumed about 10,000 news snippets — perhaps as many as thirty per day. Be very honest: name one of them, just one, that helped you make a better decision — for your life, your career or your business —compared with not having this piece of news.
…I would predict that turning your back on news will benefit you as much as purging any of the other ninety-eight flaws we have covered in this book. Kick the habit — completely. Instead, read long background articles and books. Yes, nothing beats books for understanding the world.
To understand how Nazis employed culture to define and promote their broadest ambitions, I looked to German mass media, in particular the main Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, whose cultural pages I examined for the years 1920 to 1945. While the Nazi co-optation of many great figures in the Western intellectual tradition during these eventful years proves revealing, one need look no further than the party’s claim on Friedrich Nietzsche to see how culture became entwined in the discourse of politics and war in the pages of Hitler’s foremost propaganda outlet.
Fitting Nietzsche’s ideas into a single worldview was no simple matter, but this was precisely the mission of the Völkischer Beobachter’s editors and writers: to make even complex ideas such as Nietzsche’s appear to coordinate with the main tenets of Nazism. Looking into the shifting terms with which the daily newspaper presented Nietzsche helps us toward understanding how the Nazi party attempted to place his biography and writings—along with the tradition of Kultur as a whole—at the service of the Nazi outlook.
Rationalization is truly an amazing thing.
Smart politicians and media observers will pay attention to this trend. There is the potential for spiritual voters to exert major influence this year and in 2016.
…This is not an impassable dilemma. With a third of young adults checking the “no religion” box, we can’t afford to let it be. For politicians, it may be a major opportunity, and for more than empty posturing. If the social project for spiritual people is to identify forms of community and civic participation with which they feel at home, then politicians have the opportunity to be partners from the inside, to help to shape these community and civic forms.
This includes, first and foremost, strategies of listening—polling, interviewing, researching—to understand not just how spiritual people vote but also the ways in which their relationships with the sacred open out into their civil involvements and political decisions. (Journalists and scholars need to become better listeners, too.)
Your mission — should you choose to accept it — is to lavish attention on these SNRs, make them aware of their heightened importance, and get them to open up and talk about themselves. Good luck — you’re going to need it.
If there is any “ambiguity” about Stalin’s moral record, it may be because communism strikes a chord with some of our nobler impulses, seeking equality for all and an end to poverty. No such universal aspiration can be found in Nazism, which, even on its face, was not concerned about what was good for all, but about what was good for one supposed racial group, and which was clearly motivated by hatred and contempt for other ethnic groups.
But communism under Stalin was the opposite of egalitarian, for it gave absolute power to a few, and denied all rights to the many. Those who defend Stalin’s reputation credit him with lifting millions out of poverty; but millions could have been lifted out of poverty without murdering and incarcerating millions more.
Making conversation during a road trip recently, my dad asked me why Hitler was seen as more of a symbol of absolute evil than comparable people like Stalin. It’s a pop-culture thought experiment, of course, not a serious historical question up for objective analysis. You either share the vague impression behind the premise or you don’t. As for me, I do — I think there’s clearly still a large remnant of revolutionary chic among the young and stupid (to say nothing of the cynical and stupid in academia), and I’m certain that a mainstream webzine for progressive airheads like Salon would never run a gushing interview with a celebrity charlatan-intellectual who even hinted at an affinity for Nazi leaders, let alone boasted of one. Anyway, anecdotal observations aside, my answer was that, one, Hitler lost, and it’s true what they say about the authors of history books. Had he won and presided over a relatively stable German empire across Eurasia, maybe we’d have a more nuanced view of him. After all, in the early part of the 20th century, race-based pseudoscience and Social Darwinism were hardly the exclusive property of the political right; many prominent progressives were also supporters of eugenics. And Hitler was famously inspired by the eugenics movement in the U.S. (as well as the thoroughness with which it wiped out its indigenous population). If you want to be slightly cynical about it, you could say that condemning Nazism as irredeemably, indisputably rotten from the start due to its racial obsession is probably a way of coping with our own cultural guilt via projection.
Secondly, I said, riffing off of Isaiah Berlin, ever since the Enlightenment, there’s been a strong belief among progressive intellectuals that human society can be comprehended and controlled by means of the same sort of scientific rationality that made such stunning advances in taming the natural world. Surely there must be a Newton of social science who can formulate the simple, clear laws by which we can reorder society and put an end to injustice and unfairness! As you can easily enough find, a significant number of people still go through incredible contortions to make Marx fit the bill, but aside from those true believers, everyone else is still waiting in vain for such a savior. There seems to be a stubborn reluctance to accept that a theory that looks so good on paper could keep going wrong when implemented in reality. Many intellectuals still harbor a No True Scotsman-like belief that maybe just maybe if we gave it one more try, we could somehow fix the bug — not a feature, damn it! — the bug that, from the Jacobins to the DPRK, keeps producing similar results.
The comments to the article are pretty much as expected; one eyebrow-raising bit is Singer replying to a comment wondering why he didn’t include Mao in this comparison by saying that most of Mao’s victims were killed by his “egotistical and economic lunacy” rather than a deliberate campaign of annihilation. I have to admit that’s a fine distinction I wouldn’t have made myself; perhaps Mao is simply history’s worst manslaughterer, then? At any rate, there’s also the usual counter-charges that colonialism and capitalism are just as bloody-handed and therefore unfit to judge. Possibly so, but again, the Enlightenment-derived ideologies were supposed to be the moral, humane improvement upon the status quo, so forgive me for not being impressed by a measly tu quoque defense. I can resignedly accept the reasoning that liberal democracies, whatever their histories, are the best we can do in an imperfect world; I’m much more disturbed by the lingering faith in radical ideology, the willingness of so many to be impressed by empty rhetoric, to believe that this time, utopia is surely just up ahead, right around the next mountain of corpses.
The sad thing is that Munroe has brought up, in this comic, a topic that is very important to me: the sad tendency of people to be so threatened by the possibility of judgment, they seek to deny even the implied judgment of alternate behaviors. The internet is a set of communicative technologies that have the capacity to reveal the full flower of human diversity to us, but which are very often used in the service of conformity. That’s why “You’re Doing It Wrong” is an internet trope, because the very thought of different people behaving in different ways came to be seen as threatening. In a cultural age dominated by insecurity, to see other people living lives that are different than our own is to invite the possibility that ours could be perceived as less worthy. So preemption becomes essential; the behavior of others becomes not different but wrong, even ridiculous. That’s how you end up with an online world filled with essays about how, say, your choice of coffee grinder reveals your character.
Anticipated reproach, you mean? The social web has certainly brought about a “revillaging” effect, familiar to those of us who lament, like Michael Corleone, that just when we thought we’d escaped the stultifying conformity of small-town life, they pulled us back in. But this is hardly a new phenomenon; it’s as old as homo sapiens itself. We’ve always been insecure social animals with a strong drive to monitor and regulate the behavior of our fellows. That’s our default state.
Ask any introvert — we’ve had to wearily navigate the intricacies of other people’s insecurities all our lives. “Thanks, but I really just want to go home and read some more of my book” is never going to be accepted as a valid, non-rude excuse to opt out of an invitation. People with conventional, mainstream preferences and habits will always take it as a snub when someone declines to join them, no matter how politely or apologetically. You don’t want to come over/go out together? What’s wrong with me? Don’t you like me? You think you’re better than me or something?
It’s been my experience that the sort of cosmopolitan self-assuredness, if you want to call it that, necessary to not feel implicitly judged when confronted with people who think and act differently is something people have to grow into, and many never do. Perhaps we can get all Hegelian about it and suggest that there’s a sort of dialectical process to it: first, you’re a typical herd animal; then, you join some sort of subculture out of rebellion, only to find that such groups tend to ultimately be even more conformist than the culture they’re rebelling against; and then, finally, you just learn to enjoy what you like and quit worrying about what everyone else says and does.
The notion of husbanding the human race as though we were game or livestock horrifies on multiple levels — moral, religious, and philosophical, not to mention legal. To suggest applying principles of wildlife management to our own species conjures abominations such as humans being culled like deer. Although we famously aren’t good at remembering history, attempts at thinning our ranks — otherwise known as genocide — are among our most indelible historical memories.
Yet although we strive for the heavens, as Pascal noted, we are still mammals who, like all other earthly creatures, require food and water — resources that we are now outstripping. Our seafood is down to dregs scraped from the ocean floor; our soils on chemical life support; our rivers fouled and drained. We squeeze and shatter rocks, mine frigid seas, and split atoms in risky places because easily harvested fuels are nearly gone. Like Kaibab deer, every species in the history of biology that outgrows its resource base suffers a population crash — a crash sometimes fatal to the entire species. In a world now stretched to the brink, today we all live in a parkland, not a boundless wilderness. To survive and continue the legacy of our species, we must adjust accordingly.
Inevitably — and, we must hope, humanely and nonviolently — that means gradually bringing our numbers down. The alternative is letting nature — the new nature we’ve inadvertently created in our own image — do that for us.
It’s a fascinating and frightening book; thank goodness the only kids I’ve ever wanted to have are the canine kind. Still, after reading this, I think I’ll go get a second vasectomy just to be safe. Yeah, go ahead, doc, tie everything off even tighter, please.
The only criticism I have is that he doesn’t call for a reconsideration of the ethics of cannibalism, but I bet we’ll get there sometime this century.
Winter uses all the blues there are.
One shade of blue for water, one for ice,
Another blue for shadows over snow.
The clear or cloudy sky uses blue twice-
Both different blues. And hills row after row
Are colored blue according to how far.
You know the bluejay’s double-blur device
Shows best when there are no green leaves to show.
And Sirius is a winterbluegreen star.
— Robert Francis