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.

Open This Content

The Monsters You Tolerate Will Breed Monsters You Can’t Stand

In the 20th century, the story of European imperial holdings was a story (mostly) of communism.

Do you think Winston Churchill anticipated this? Rudyard Kipling? Any of the other enthusiastic imperialists of the 19th century? They may have seen themselves as defenders of a very different kind of order.

Yet nonetheless in promoting imperialism (bad) the European imperialists created militarized, policed cultures. They created egregious inequalities of authority and status. They created societies more dependent on the state. And of course, they created people resentful at rule from afar.

Is it any wonder with all of these factors considered that the “dominoes” in the former European holdings fell so fast?

The Europeans created the emotional hatred of Westernness and (and therefore anything associated to it that any actual good contributions of Europe were threatened.

The monster they tolerated (imperialism) directly bred the (worse) national socialism/communism that took over throughout South America, Africa, and Asia.

What if the European empires had ended their colonial rules 50 or 100 years earlier? All other things being equal, it’s hard to believe that communism would have swept Africa, Asia, and South America as it did. And it’s possible the countries of the West would not have ended up at the gunpoint of countries which they once held at gunpoint.

It happened slowly, then all at once, but the imperialism that Europe tolerated in its own codes of values led to the communism which the Churchills and Kiplings would never have embraced.

What monsters do you tolerate? They may not torture you as they torture people around you. But they will breed. And the offspring of the evils you tolerate in yourself may become a clear danger to you, too.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

Open This Content

Clashing Values

Different people have different values. It’s not that anyone’s values are necessarily wrong for them, it’s that when you impose a “win/lose” system someone is going to be on the losing side.

Just a couple of examples–

Compassion for refugees vs defense of “your culture”.

Compassion for LGBTQ vs respecting the rights of those who aren’t.

Compassion for rape victims vs compassion for the falsely accused.

Values clash. Or they can seem to if you think it has to be either/or.

But anytime they appear to clash, liberty is the solution. Respect for everyone’s life, liberty, rights, and property. It’s where the balance lies; how you respect both sides without enslaving either one to the other. Anything less is uncivilized.

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

Lead a Life That Confuses the Archaeologists

If you want to lead a good life, a good rule of thumb is to live a life that is not merely the product of your age. Your life shouldn’t be reducible to the dominant forces and trends of your surrounding culture.

In other words, your life’s footprint shouldn’t be easy for the archaeologists and anthropologists of the future to understand.

Nonconformity is a lifelong task. But there are simple ways to bootstrap uniqueness, break out of your culture’s “zeitgeist”, and make some future historian’s job exceptionally hard.

Listen to music, watch movies, and read books from different ages and people and perspectives. If you have a cultural palate (say for music) that ranges from swing and bossa nova to bluegrass from several different decades, you’re going to be harder to stereotype (when you’re dead) and harder to manipulate (when you’re alive).

Integrate into your life the best customs and manners of the centuries and the cultures of the world. If you’re hosting dinner parties and corresponding via letter in 2019, it’s going to be much harder to place you. You’re also going to have much more interesting interactions and relationships with people.

Live with the best values of the many ages and places of humankind. Embody the heroism of the Norsemen, the hospitality of the Arabs, and the independence of the Americans. Live with the social liberalism of the 21st century and the devoutness of the 11th.

In short, use your mind to follow the best that all of time and human culture has to give you. Find the things that give life.

By absorbing and remixing all of these different influences, you’re going to find yourself making original connections and having more original thoughts. And while this may confuse the historians of the future, it certainly will interest them.

Open This Content

The Problem with “Here I Stand, I Can Do No Other”

“Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”

According to some tellings, this is how Protestant Christian reformer Martin Luther responded to demands that he recant positions which the established Church of his time considered heretical.

This is a badass speech, and it’s archetypal in our society. It’s the speech of many martyrs throughout history – people who have chose to accept terrible consequences for their decision to do what’s right.

But it’s technically wrong.

Technically, Martin Luther could very well have done something “other.” He could have recanted. He could have partially recanted. He could have pretended to recant.

And when you pull a page from ML’s book and tell your boss, your parents, your friends, or the Nazi camp guard that you *can’t* do something because it’s against your values/convictions, you’re not being entirely honest either.

“I *can* do no other” is a cop out. You have agency, and you have a choice at all times. If you are going to make a stand for something you believe in, acknowledge that fact.

It may soften the blow for your hearers if you tell them that you *can’t* do what they’re asking you to do. But it almost implies that you *would* if you *could.* If you are making a refusal based on your values, though, there is only one right way to say it:

“Here I stand. I *will* do no other”.

Open This Content