The Fatal Weakness of the God of Cynicism

We live in a culture of overpowering cynicism.

We assume the media is bending truth. We assume people won’t speak their full minds to our faces. We assume companies, organizations, and governments will try to pull one over on us. We assume love, friendship, and honor are hollow ideals.

As products of this overpowering cynicism, we tend to view sincerity as impractical. And so we hardly ever encounter it.

It would be reasonable to view the rarity of sincerity as evidence of its weakness. That would be a mistake. To a culture of overpowering cynicism, sincerity is now rare enough to have the strategic advantage of being a surprise.

To tell the truth at risk to your own reputation? To celebrate virtue? To say what you think to someone’s face? No one expects this behavior anymore, and so it is unsettling and difficult to counter.

If you set yourself against a cynical society, your sincerity can be a great advantage.

This relentlessly sincerity can’t be born of naivete. It has to look cynicism straight in the eye and know it. It has to be a sincerity “in spite of” – in spite of the cost of doubt, in spite of excuses, in spite of accusation, in spite of mockery, and in spite of the fact that cynicism is a “safer” and more “realistic” option.

No one will know what to do with a sincerity like that. A sincerity that can persist despite a culture of cynicism unsettles that culture of cynicism. It’s what might start to change things.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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The Speech of Heroes

Almost everyone loves the idea of “speaking truth to power.”  Standing tall, talking boldly, consequences be damned – how heroic!

Yet on reflection, this Speech of Heroes takes two radically different forms.

The most common Speech of Heroes, by far, upholds Social Desirability Bias.  Example: “Everyone should be completely equal” sounds wonderful, but no actual society follows through.  Many self-styled heroic orators respond along these lines:

Equality!  We all say we believe in it.  We know it’s the right path.  Yet we are a den of hypocrites!  We pay lip service to the ideal of equality, but when inequality glares at us from every corner, we avert out eyes.  Shame on us!  Shame!  I say unto you, we must practice what we preach.  Let us live the equality we love.  Put apathy aside, my brothers and sisters.  Let us tear down all the inequalities we see.  Then let us ferret out every lingering pocket of inequality.  We must tear power from the grasp of all the corrupt leaders who casually say they oppose inequality but never do anything about it.  Together we can, should, will, and must build a totally equal society!

This kind of heroic rhetoric is standard in religious societies.  The sacred texts provide a strict blueprint for life, yet the government makes only a token effort to strictly implement the blueprint.  In response, the heroic orator sticks out his neck, decries the hypocrisy of the Powers That Be, and demands strict adherence to the holy book.  Which is music to the ears of every pious members of this society.  See the Protestant Reformation or radical Islamism for nice examples.

Notice, however, that this heroic rhetoric also dominates socialist and nationalist oratory.  Step 1: Loudly and clearly affirm a crowd-pleasing ideal.  Step 2: Decry the obvious hypocrisy of the status quo.  Step 3: Promise to strictly implement the crowd-pleasing ideal.  You’ve got socialist slogans like, “Social ownership of the means of production,” “Complete equality,” or “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  You’ve got nationalist slogans like, “Death before dishonor,” “Germany for the Germans,” or “The safety and prosperity of all our people.”  In each case, the speaker presents himself as a hero by puritanically appealing to popular sentiment.

Once in a long while, however, we encounter a radically different form of heroic oratory.  Instead of upholding Social Desirability Bias, the hero frontally attacks it.  As in:

Equality!  You all pay lip service to it, but who really believes it?  Why should people who produce and contribute the most receive the same treatment as people who do little or nothing?  You love to denounce the hypocrites who say they believe in equality but fail to deliver it.  But I say to you: Those hypocrites keep you alive!  In a totally equal society, there’s no incentive to do anything but kvetch.  If you’re tired of hypocrisy, remember that there are two ways to end it.  You could strictly implement this monstrous ideal of equality.  Or you could proclaim the truth: Equality is a monstrous ideal!  Let’s raise the banner of meritocracy, and thank our greatest producers instead of scapegoating them.

In a religious society, the analogue would naturally be rationalistic atheism: “Forget these pathetic ‘holy’ books, fantasies written long ago by ignorant fanatics.”  In a nationalist society, the analogue would be along the lines of, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” or even, “Our country is not the best in the world.  It’s not even average.  It’s below average – and things won’t improve until we admit our failures and humbly emulate the winners.”

Which form of oratory is more heroic?  Once you take Social Desirability Bias seriously, the answer is clear.  You can’t “speak truth to power” unless you speak the truth.  Implausible scenarios where Social Desirability Bias and the truth coincidentally converge, appealing to Social Desirability Bias is deeply unheroic.  Even villainous.

And truth aside, challenging your society’s fundamental values takes a lot more courage than merely decrying the violation of those values.

Yes, when you damn ruling elites for hypocrisy, those elites often retaliate.  Rhetorically, however, you’re still taking the path of low resistance.  You start with simple-minded feel-good slogans with broad appeal.  Then you point out corruption flagrant enough for anyone to see.

When you denounce your society’s fundamental values, however, you outrage elites and masses alike.  When you merely attack hypocrisy, elites have to worry about making a martyr out of you.  When you spurn Social Desirability Bias, in contrast, elites win popular support by teaching you the price of arrogance.  Who but a hero would openly challenge such a powerful pair of enemies?

Do I hold myself out as a man who embodies the Speech of Heroes?  Barely.  While I routinely challenge Social Desirability Bias, my society remains highly tolerant.  No one’s going to jail me for my words.  Indeed, since I have tenure, no one will even fire me for my words.  If I lived in a normal repressive society, I would publicly say far less than I do.  A gold-star hero would publicly express thoughts like mine… while living in Communist China or Saudi Arabia.

While I wouldn’t advise you to try this, anyone who does so is my hero.

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Honor Is a Game of Chess, Not Checkers

“It’s chess not checkers.”

That’s what my jiu jitsu coach told me once when I asked about when to or how to use a takedown. In as complex a fighting style as jiu jitsu (just like in chess, as opposed to the simpler game of checkers), there isn’t really a clear answer about when to use a “move.”

I’m learning that honor is that way, too. Honor is complex because life is complex. Rarely does it fit into a one-dimensional ruleset.

There is honor in going to bat for an ideal. But there will be times when honor requires that you prioritize a person over an ideal.

There is honor in being truthful about your own faults. But there will be times when standing proud is the most honorable thing you can do.

There is honor in standing up for someone else’s reputation. And there may be times when sacrificing your own reputation for honor may be the honorable thing.

There will be times when it is honorable to call things out. There will be times when it is honorable to stay silent.

There is honor in fighting an enemy, but there may be times when honor may require you to forgive or even work with an enemy for the sake of a greater good.

There is honor in disrespecting the disrespectable. And yet there may also be times when honor requires you to admit your foolishness to fools or your guilt to the guilty.

Honor is complex. It’s a strange, evolved code of lived-out truth, courage, loyalty, fairness, and personal risk. All of these dimensions of honor have to be combined in an honorable decision.

But all of this is not to say that the honorable way is hard to recognize. Honor is complex because life is complex, but we are ourselves complex beings. We have evolved with honor, and (somehow) we always know how to head in the direction of honor. We won’t know the exact steps to get there, or exactly where we will end up, but after all, that is what makes the game interesting.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Be Someone’s Moral Measuring Stick

My father and my grandfather told me to “be the man [I] was supposed to be” since I was young. In their code, this means telling the truth, acting honorably, playing fairly, working hard.

It’s the code of farmers, and it’s rare to find in the city, where the simple code sometimes invites scorn or condescension.

When I make the right (even if hard) decision, it is comforting to know that at least my father and grandfather would be proud. With them as fixed points in my mind I can afford to let the outside world get to me a little less.

My grandfather was a man who lived as he ought. My father is a man who lives by the code. And because of that they are moral measuring sticks for me, constants and landmarks for moral navigation and self-evaluation. This is what I’d like to be for my children and grandchildren.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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The Gods Whose Sacrifices We Neglect

The old gods have a lot to teach us.

Sure, we all know that the Greek pantheon – Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Hades, Ares, Athena, Artemis, Demeter, Dionysus, and the rest – don’t *really* exist.

But there is a reason people chose these characters to personify their understanding of the world. As psychologist Jordan Peterson points out, each god (in all of his or her power and pettiness) represents some of the fundamental human drives or attributes – sex, intelligence, wrath, independence.

The old Greek pantheon is a sophisticated way for understanding the complex human mind, which is home to many powerful needs and drives that sometimes act like personalities.

Like the gods of legend, these “gods” of our personality don’t like people who spurn them. And it doesn’t take a long look into Greek mythology to know that the gods do awful things to people they don’t like. Afflictions of madness, afflictions of lust, transformation into animals – it’s not pretty.

Aren’t fighting for your rights, your ideas, or your self-respect? You are neglecting Ares (the god of war) and he will exact his sacrifice someway. Usually this will look like a gradual building resentment, with an explosion of anger toward someone who doesn’t deserve it at a time it’s not called for.

Aren’t honoring or expressing your own sexuality? You may be offending Aphrodite (who brought about the downfall of Heracles – so not someone to be messed with). She’ll have her due, in uncontrolled, warped, or frustrated desire.

Aren’t preserving your independence and purity? Giving in to the crowd? Surrendering what makes you unique? In a sense you are offending the virgin goddess Artemis, who is perhaps the scariest of them all (she’ll turn you into a stag and have your own hounds kill you).

It’s all imagination, I know. But I still find it interesting to think of my own drives or needs as personalities. With personalities, at least we can bargain. We can make the sacrifices that all good Greeks knew to make. And we can remember that neglecting any of the gods has terrible consequences.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Siege at Ruby Ridge: The Forgotten History of the ATF Shootout That Started a Militia Movement

The Siege at Ruby Ridge is often considered a pivotal date in American history. The shootout between Randy Weaver and his family and federal agents on August 21, 1992, is one that kicked off the Constitutional Militia Movement and left America with a deep distrust of its leadership – in particular then-President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno.

The short version is this: Randy Weaver and his wife Vicki moved with their four kids to the Idaho Panhandle, near the Canadian border, to escape what they thought was an increasingly corrupt world. The Weavers held racial separatist beliefs, but were not involved in any violent activity or rhetoric. They were peaceful Christians who simply wanted to be left alone.

Specifically for his beliefs, Randy Weaver was targeted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in an entrapping “sting” operation designed to gain his cooperation as a snitch. When he refused to become a federal informant, he was charged with illegally selling firearms. Due to a miscommunication about his court date, the Marshal Service was brought in, who laid siege to his house and shot and killed his wife and 14-year-old son.

Randy Weaver was, in many ways, a typical American story. He grew up in an Iowa farming community. He got decent grades in high school and played football. His family attended church regularly. He dropped out of community college and joined the United States Army in 1970. After three years of service, he was honorably discharged.

One month later he married Victoria Jordison. He then enrolled in the University of Northern Iowa, studying criminal justice with an eye toward becoming an FBI Agent. However, he dropped out because the tuition was too expensive. He ended up working in a John Deere plant while his wife worked as a secretary before becoming a homemaker.

Both of the Weavers increasingly became apocalyptic in their view of the world. This, combined with an increasing emphasis on Old Testament-based Christianity, led them to seek a life away from mainstream America, a life of self-reliance. Vicki, in particular, had strong visions of her family surviving the apocalypse through life far away from what they viewed as a corrupt world. To that end, Randy purchased a 20-acre farm in Ruby Ridge, ID, and built a cabin there.

The land was purchased for $5,000 in cash and the trade of the truck they used to move there. Vicki homeschooled the children.

Continue reading Siege at Ruby Ridge: The Forgotten History of the ATF Shootout That Started a Militia Movement at Ammo.com.

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