They Know Better

Moral reasoning is hard.  It’s so hard, in fact, that most people do little moral reasoning.  Instead, as Daniel Kahneman would expect, they perform a mental substitution.  Rather than wonder, “What’s morally right?,” they ask, “What’s socially acceptable?”

In decent societies, this seems fairly harmless.  When your society is even selectively evil, however, the substitution is disastrous.  Strictly following standard social norms in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China is murder.

Which brings us to a pressing question: How do you know whether your society is evil?  Or to make matters even starker: How hard was it for the average adult in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China to know that their societies were evil?  If people can’t readily figure that out on their own, what moral questions can they answer?

My claim: Figuring out that Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China are evil is an easy task for almost anyone – including lifelong members of those societies.  How so?  By applying two principles that a child can understand.

Principle #1: Turnaround. When a child mistreats each other, adults routinely ask the offender something like, “Would it be all right if someone did that to you?”  When you’re faced with complex moral hypotheticals, this question won’t get you far.  But when you’re wondering, “Is it all right to murder some peaceful but unpopular people?,” you really can fast forward to the right answer just by asking, “If you were a Jew/kulak/money-lender, would it be all right to murder you?”

Principle #2: Bad laws are made to be broken. Virtually everyone in every society regularly breaks the law – and they usually do so with a clean conscience.  This is clearly true when the law inflicts great suffering for no good reason.  Yet people also routinely break laws simply because the laws are obviously stupid.  A few people may claim to “Always follow the law,” but even these stubborn folk spend little time actually studying the laws to ensure they don’t accidentally break one.  Neither do they feel guilty about their lackadaisical effort to master the body of laws they’re nominally determined to strictly obey.  And since people already break the law to cut a few minutes off their commute, the idea that they should disobey laws ordering the murder of Jews/kulaks/money-lenders is only an intellectual baby step.

None of this means that ordinary people in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China were morally obliged to die as martyrs.  However, it does mean ordinary people in these societies could easily figure out that their societies were deeply evil – and they should at least covertly strive to avoid complicity.  If they failed to figure that out, it is because they culpably failed to apply moral principles they understood since childhood.

The moral standards for people who actually formed and carried out these policies were, of course, much higher.  I’ve quoted Spiderman before and I’ll quote him again: With great power comes great responsibility.  Ordinary people have no obligation to devote their lives to the study of moral philosophy and social science.  But anyone who wields political power over thousands of human beings – much less millions – absolutely does.

Open This Content

Get Off the Pendulum: The Trap of Reactionary Thinking

When I was younger, I used to enjoy riding Pharaoh’s Fury at the Coastal Carolina fair. This big sphinx-headed boat swung back and forth on a mechanical arm, terrifying and thrilling the riders, and (in our imaginations) we thought about what it would be like if it went upside down – dumping us all out.

This ride is much like how most people and cultures do their thinking about values in politics, religion, and cultural norms. We swing in one direction, then another, then back again.

For a while one major viewpoint dominates. That viewpoint oppresses or annoys a strong minority until it eventually creates a strong reaction and a pendulum swing in the other direction. Cultural control comes into the hands of the new majority, which oppresses or annoys the new minority, and the cycle begins again.

You can see the pendulum in action in a society’s relationship with religion: when religion dominates, secularists react (see the antitheist movement), and when secularism dominates, religionists react (see the fundamentalist movement). I’d argue that the intensity of both antitheism and fundamentalism are driven by feelings of disenfranchisement and oppression (and therefore more vulnerable to lazy thinking) rather than *just* differences of opinion.

You can especially see the pendulum in action on norms around gender roles and masculinity/femininity. For a long time, men (they still do in most cases) held and abused power over women. Fortunately for everyone, some women got pissed off and produced feminism. At some point, the swing toward feminine empowerment began to (at least appear to) correspond with a deemphasis of masculinity and a deconstruction of the important social role of males and masculinity. That has produced another swing in the direction of revived masculinity – some fantastic, but some unhealthy and unhealthily angry with feminism. In any case, if this reaction succeeds, it may only trigger another swing back in the other direction.

You can see the pendulum on a macro scale as well as in the micro scale of individual thinking. Everyone seems caught up in one reaction or another to the swinging of the belief pendulum. Perhaps you’ve gone through changes in your own beliefs. How often were you shifting your beliefs because of a sense of annoyance, or boredom, or anger, or contempt?

Of course, thinking on a pendulum is stupid. Thinking based on reaction and based on majority/minority belief status blinds you to complexity and to the actual merits of arguments.

And unfortunately, unlike a pendulum limited by Newton’s laws, the pendulum of reactionary thought in politics and philosophy can continue to swing wider and further out with each cycle – until everyone falls out of the ride (to borrow the earlier metaphor).

There are alternatives.

If you use discernment, you’ll watch to separate out your reasoned beliefs from your reactionary/emotional/tribal ones. When you do that, you’ll be surprised how non-partisan and hard-to-categorize your beliefs become.

Maybe the left has good things to say about unjustly-acquired wealth. Maybe the right has good things to say about individual skill and responsibility in building wealth. Maybe the right answer includes and transcends (to borrow a phrase from Ken Wilber) both.

Maybe the feminists have good things to say about structural injustices toward women. Maybe the masculinists have something good to say about the importance of independent manhood.

Maybe the secularists can teach us something about being. Maybe the religionists can teach us something about the ground and sacredness of being.

When your beliefs can become this nuanced and non-tribal, you can be insulated from most of the worst effects of the social pendulum. But always watch out for what irritates you in others’ beliefs and actions. The irritation will always be there, but you can’t let it push you to change much in your values – or at all in the values that matter most.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

Open This Content

Buddhist Anarchism and Nonviolent Communication

Here are some pieces that I wrote up for two episodes of the Anarchy Bang podcast. One episode was about buddhist anarchism and the other episode was about Nonviolent Communication & anarchism.


Buddhist Anarchism

It’s hard to really know where to begin with Buddhism, given that there are so many different ways that people relate to the thing. Buddhism can be seen as a religion, a philosophy, an approach to psychology, a personal practice or a culture. And then there are the infinite different sects, traditions, branches and sub-branches within Buddhism. It all can very quickly become very overwhelming and confusing.

That all being said, the way that I like to begin to make sense of Buddhism is by studying some of the renowned lists within Buddhism. What better way to organize one’s thoughts on something than to use lists? One list in particular stands out to me the most, it’s called “the three marks of existence”. Basically it lists the three qualities that mark life as we know it. The first quality is that change is constant and inevitable, that nothing lasts forever. The second is that everything is comprised of many different interacting components and forces acting on it, that nothing exists on it’s own, in and of itself. Basically, “anti-essentialism” is how I like to look at it. And the third is that suffering exists, it’s an experience that we all have.

This then goes into perhaps the most famous list within Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths. The first one is what I just mentioned, that whole “suffering” thing that we all have. The second is that there is a root cause to this suffering, and that is craving or clinging to our ideas of what we want. The third is that it is indeed possible to overcome this kind of attachment. And the fourth is the way to go about doing that, which is itself another list, the Noble Eightfold Path.

…And as much as I love the Noble Eightfold Path, I won’t go into that list here.

So what does this all have to do with anarchism? Well, as I see it, that whole “suffering” condition that we all experience makes us all crazy, it makes us all desperate and frantic, even if we are able to put up a good front and present ourselves as being mature capable thinkers. Our lack of dealing with our own suffering head-on deprives us of our own personal power.

Buddhist practice is all about developing one’s own personal power, self-mastery, cultivating one’s ability to choose and act on one’s choices, rather that letting one’s own old habits, old beliefs and emotional reactivity dictate one’s life. It’s also about getting more peace and contentment in one’s life. You are not always going to get what you want, anarchists will always disappoint you, your dreams for an anarchist world will never happen, and if you do decide to embark on a Buddhist practice, you will probably fuck that up too. But the paradoxical beauty of Buddhism is that even with that all being the case, one can come to acceptance of all of that, and still keep on going. At least for as long as this life you are living now exists.


Nonviolent Communication & Anarchism

Nonviolent Communication (also known as “NVC” or “compassionate communication”) is a set of conceptual tools and a general worldview that a number of anarchists have found useful and at times have adopted. Some have found it to be a how-to guide for living without hierarchy and domination, whereas others have found it to be a series of tips for approaching conflict in ways that are hopefully more productive.

NVC can be used as a way to do conflict resolution, which is what it is best known for, but it can also be used for meeting facilitation, counseling & therapy, and some would say for social change work itself. The crux of NVC is developing one’s ability to make distinctions between objective observations vs. subjective interpretations, bodily-felt feelings vs. cognitive evaluations, and fundamental human needs vs. the infinite ways that needs can be met. The ultimate goal of NVC is for it’s practitioners to come to embody a way of being that the psychologist Carl Rogers said is most helpful in relationships: heartfelt authenticity, empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard. The idea is that through such qualities being present in a relationship, that relationship will eventually and inevitably become stronger, autonomy-respecting, collaborative and conducive to those involved realizing their own personal power. Anarchy, baby!

Some related readings

The Basics of Nonviolent Communication

Key Assumptions and Intentions of Nonviolent Communication

Compassionate Anarchism

Can the Social Order Be Transformed through Personal Practice? The Case of Nonviolent Communication

Person-centered Therapy

 


I will begin with a quote which has always been the touchstone for me and my anarchism, that famous quote from Gustav Landauer:

“The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another… We are the State and we shall continue to be the State until we have created the institutions that form a real community.”

With this in mind, I immediately ask: what are the different kinds of relationships that would comprise anarchy? What would these relationships look like?

The answers that I come up with is that these relationships would, generally-speaking, acknowledge and respect the autonomy of everybody involved while also enabling people to cooperate, collaborate and make decisions together as equals, with no one person or group of people bossing everyone else around. All of this stuff is easier said than done, which is why I eventually started to look for some guides and pointers for how to actually do this, practically-speaking.

This lead to me eventually discovering something called “Nonviolent Communication”, or “NVC” for short. NVC generally lives in the self-help/self-improvement world, and the demographic that is mainly drawn to NVC is middle-aged middle-class 1st world white women with liberal/progressive politics. In short, NVC is not at all something that originates from the anarchist scene, yet as soon as I started to study I immediately saw the connections and correlations with anarchism, and I got quite excited about that.

For about five years I was a zealous missionary for a kind of NVC-anarchist hybrid that I tried to develop and promote to anybody who would listen to me. For the next ten years after that I had more of a low-key involvement with NVC lasting until just last year when I decided to end my involvement with the NVC milieu altogether. My overall takeaway message from the whole thing is that while some maps, guides and conceptual schemas may be helpful for actualizing anarchy in the real-world, ultimately human beings with all of their complexities, foibles and psychoses go above and beyond anything that we can come up with.

To quote our anarchist daddy, Mikhail Bakunin: “No theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will save the world. I cleave to no system. I am a true seeker.”

This leaves me with a belief that Nonviolent Communication is something that can be useful and helpful for anarchists, if one cares to spend the time & energy to seriously consider it. I do not think that NVC is something that anybody “should” do, and in fact I think that the moment that one looks at it that way the whole thing becomes completely worthless and a waste of time. But if the sincere interest and desire to learn NVC is there, then the time spent can be worthwhile. So let’s talk about Nonviolent Communication.

Open This Content

Great Tools for Teaching Kids Economics and Liberty

Whenever my children express an interest in economics or are curious about the ideals of freedom and responsibility, I can barely contain my excitement. It wasn’t until college that I discovered, and fell in love with, economics, and it wasn’t until much later that I understood liberty as a life philosophy.

Fortunately, I can avoid stifling their budding interest by drawing demand curves or quoting Hayek and Hazlitt (though I’ve been known to do both!) and turn to some outstanding resources just for kids. Designed to introduce economic principles and the foundations of a free society to young children, these tools are interesting, engaging, and easy-to-understand—for children and adults alike!

The Tuttle Twins

The popular Tuttle Twins book series continues to grow, with 10 children’s books now available, as well as accompanying activity sheets and instructional materials. Created by Connor Boyack, a father who was disappointed by the dearth of good economic and civic content for kids, The Tuttle Twins series introduces concepts ranging from spontaneous order and how money works to individual rights and youth entrepreneurship. The latest book in the series, The Tuttle Twins and the Education Vacation, makes a case for non-coercive learning outside of the classroom.

These may seem like big ideas for small children, but Boyack says we underestimate children’s ability and interest. “I’ve been blown away at how well little kids can understand big ideas,” he says.

We get reviews from parents daily who are amazed at the same discovery and are thankful that their children are being introduced to ideas that most adults never learn.

Boyack recently launched Free Market Rules, a new weekly, family-centered curriculum for exploring free-market principles in greater depth, and FEE readers can use the coupon FORTY to get 40 percent off the Tuttle Twins books.

Nobody Know How to Make a Pizza

FEE’s founder, Leonard E. Read, wrote his famous essay, “I, Pencil,” in 1958, celebrating the miracle of the free market in facilitating voluntary exchange and producing the goods and services we want and need. This process happens spontaneously, without any central planner determining what to produce and how to produce it. Indeed, the remarkable message of “I, Pencil” is that “not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”

Now, author and economics commentator Julie Borowski offers a kid-friendly version of Read’s classic essay in her new book Nobody Knows How to Make a Pizza. Like a pencil, a pizza may seem simple to make, but it relies on millions of strangers working together peacefully and spontaneously to produce a basic cheese pizza. Borowski explains why she decided to write this book:

Over the years, many parents have told me that their kids enjoy listening to my commentary because I make learning about economics fun and simple. Some have asked if I would ever consider writing a children’s book. One day, I was re-reading Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil” when it hit me. It’s already a fascinating story, but can I make it more kid-friendly? I changed it to pizza cause, well, kids are more interested in pizza than pencils. And my illustrator, Tetiana Kopytova, did an amazing job creating cute characters with bright colors. It’s a fun, positive book that will revolutionize the way kids think about the world.

Sign-Up: Receive Kerry’s Weekly Parenting and Education Newsletter!

I Know My Rights: A Children’s Guide to the Bill of Rights and Individual Liberty

A 2017 survey by the University of Pennsylvania found that 37 percent of American adults couldn’t name one right protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and only one-quarter of them could name all three branches of government. Clearly, there is a crisis in American civic education and a disturbing lack of understanding of individual liberty.

Author Rory Margraf wanted to address this problem by creating an accessible, colorful children’s book that easily explains the Bill of Rights and the principles of liberty to kids. He says:

I Know My Rights: A Children’s Guide to the Bill of Rights and Individual Liberty was inspired by research for an article while reflecting on the first time I was stopped by the authorities. The gap in civics knowledge, between both children and adults, indicated a crucial need for additional resources outside of brick-and-mortar schooling.

The book was so well-received that Margraf plans to release a sequel to I Know My Rights before the holidays. He adds:

I have found that the philosophy of liberty and the principles of free markets reach children extremely well.

FEE Resources

FEE also provides many high-quality resources to help young people expand their knowledge of economics and individual liberty. The free Invisible Hands video series for kids combines fun puppets and a famous YouTuber to offer an introductory look at basic economic principles. And for teenagers, FEE’s three-day summer seminars on college campuses across the country offer an opportunity for more in-depth exploration of these important ideas. Additionally, FEE’s free online courses on economics and entrepreneurship are great for people of all ages!

Parents are perfectly positioned to introduce economic and civic concepts to their children. In fact, they may be the best ones to do it. With authors now creating exceptionally good material for young children on these topics, it has never been easier or more enjoyable for parents to present these ideas to their kids and help them to deepen their knowledge throughout their teenage years.

Open This Content

“Nuance” in Politics and Public Policy? No, Thanks

In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry called his ever-shifting position on the war in Iraq “nuanced” as a way of explaining why he was for it before he was against it and why his prescriptions for its future kept changing.

“Nuance” pops up frequently in debates on politics and public policy, almost always as an excuse for either non-specificity on a current position or flip-flopping from a past position.

Of all the words in the political lexicon, none makes for a brighter neon DO NOT TRUST sign than “nuance.”

According to WordNet, “nuance” is “a subtle difference in meaning or opinion or attitude.”

Nuance is a wonderful characteristic in painting, literature, music, and the other arts.

In political philosophy and public policy, it’s  a cheat mechanism used for the purpose of creating unwarranted wiggle room.

“Define your terms, you will permit me again to say,” wrote Voltaire, “or we shall never understand one another.”

That’s the whole point of resort to “nuance” in political and policy discussions. The “nuanced” advocate or candidate doesn’t want to be understood, or at least doesn’t want to be understood clearly. He’s trying to create a loophole through which he can escape his position when that position becomes inconvenient.

“Nuance” is the excuse of the civil libertarian who’s all for free speech until someone says something she doesn’t like, at which point we learn that “hate speech isn’t free speech.”

It’s the talking point of the pro-gun-rights politician who announces that a 30-round magazine is too large and must be banned — but that his views on guns haven’t changed.

And yes,  it’s the plea from the formerly anti-war politician who votes to invade Iraq and then wants to be treated as the anti-war candidate.

What it’s not is a desirable quality in politics and public policy.

From our political candidates, we deserve clear statements of principle and position, not “nuanced” attempts to avoid declaring any principles or positions at all which they might later be held to. If a politician changes her mind, we deserve to know — and to know why — rather than just being told she hasn’t and that we just don’t get the “nuance.”

From our laws and proposals for laws, we deserve specificity. We’re expected to abide by those laws. Letting the cops, prosecutors, judges, and bureaucrats who implement and enforce them write post-passage “nuance” into them is letting them make the law up as they go and leaving ourselves at their “nuanced” mercy.

Regardless of one’s position on any given issue, it’s important to define our terms  and then either stick to them or admit that we’ve abandoned them.

In politics and public policy, “nuance” is where truth goes to die.

Open This Content

Why Culture Matters

What is Culture?

As individuals, people experience consciousness (identity, intelligence, soul, conscience), develop character (will, agency, behavioral patterns, habits), and demonstrate preferences of style (taste). Biological traits and tendencies both enable and limit perceptions and abilities, but all people have the ability (and unavoidable responsibility) to shape their character and develop to their potential.

By natural extension, groups of people also experience a sort of shared consciousness (shared identity, values, perceptions, language, epistemological orientation), develop a shared character (ethics, norms/rules, priorities, organizations, obligations, expectations, group dynamics, reputation), and express shared style preferences (aesthetics, dress and grooming, design, cuisine, music, humor, communication patterns, leisure activities, rhythm of life). Culture is an umbrella term for the shared identity, values, perceptions, perspectives, knowledge, beliefs, organizations, practices, and preferences of a group.

Culture is Fundamental

Culture is about much more than just style. Style is a very visible part of culture, but it is also comparably superficial and inconsequential. Style differences rarely cause significant conflict (except, perhaps between significantly shallow people). On the other hand, differences in things like ethics, rules, and behavioral patterns are at the heart of very serious conflicts, indeed. In fact, many conflicts that on the surface appear to be motivated by ethnic identity, political ideology, or religious affiliation are fundamentally cultural.

But understanding culture is not just about conflict; it’s also about the progress of civilizations and quality of life for people everywhere. Key adjustments in culture can have profound effects on group dynamics and future generations.

Cultural Advancement and Decline

The word “culture” comes from the latin cultura referring to the care, development, and protection required to develop something, as in “cultivation” and “agriculture”. The weeds and rocks have to go and the soil has to be prepared in order for precious seeds to be carefully planted and become a beautiful garden that bears fruit and is worth preserving.

In other words, a culture must be both conservative and progressive in order to develop. That is, its members must conserve positive elements while also abandoning negative ones and adopting additional positive ones. All cultures should embrace the best practices of other cultures while conserving and promoting their own.

Here are some examples of elements of high-performing cultures that have proven their value and are worth adopting: coherent philosophy, individual self-determination, reciprocity ethics and natural law, clear and noble grand narrative, private property norms, freedom of association, monogamy, incest avoidance, courtesy, hygiene, industriousness, low time preference, precise and high-minded language, appreciation of / participation in / contribution to sophisticated pursuits.

Cultural decline is marked by the abandonment of such elements and their replacement with corrupt and perverse ones.

Open This Content