The self-designating popular groupings which now call themselves “left” and “right” are beyond incoherent. No unified vision, understanding, principle or program in sight. This sad reality has already been quite conclusively proven to anyone eccentric and determined enough to insist upon reading about the world from diverse viewpoints. Willful and dangerous misunderstanding of others is now outright fashionable (in every camp). The dominant modern ‘house style’ you might even say.
We are all constantly bombarded with “Straw Man” arguments, when an excitable idiot tells you a dishonest version of their opponent’s views, and then refutes their opponent solely on the basis of their own dishonesty. Sickening.
Recently I’ve seen more and more people calling for “Steel Man” arguments instead, which means I finally have a handy term for something I have insisted on (and found supremely useful) for a few decades now. Not going after an opponent where they are weakest, but instead taking on the strongest best and most useful parts of their thought. That is, showing some basic respect.
Why do this? Isn’t the point of an argument to win? Only for a juvenile idiot.
I know there are a lot of ways to frame an idea this big, and I strongly defend the value of allowing for multiple viewpoints and attitudes. But that still doesn’t make our dumb craze for absolute and unlimited relativism (that is, utter pointlessness) any kind of a foundation for happiness, understanding or effective action.
As far as I can tell, the point of life is to be as capable and happy as we can – which means steadily improving our understanding awareness and skills as we go, so we can become more and more useful to the people around us.
I’m being both general and specific at the same time here. People define happiness many different ways, but whether it means having healthy resilient kids who respect you enough that they want you in your grandkid’s lives, or making a huge pile of money so you can treat your pals to luxury, we do not ever get serious value from the world without offering it something it wants.
So no – the point is not to win arguments, the point is to keep getting smarter, stronger, kinder and wiser (more useful on all fronts) and this means being not only willing but quite happy to lose any argument where you encounter a better idea. This is an incredibly rare approach nowadays, but it still holds up.
In fact, if we think it through we soon realize that any other approach means we have decided in advance to support some foolishness and stupidity for reasons which have nothing to do with its validity. That is, no common measure of value.
This idea – I knowingly choose to support errors indefinitely for emotional reasons – is a pretty clear, because strictly functional, definition of tribalism.
What does the other way look like? There are several important distinctions, but the biggest are that it acts less like a brat, and it has deeper friendships based on shared aspiration, instead of shared anger (cross training our best selves with others, instead of helping one another stay mired in pain or resentment forever).
Now here’s the important bit that all tribalists get wrong – their go-to technique for recovering self-sabotaging ignorance, right on the edge of new understanding.
YES FRUSTRATION IS LEGITIMATE. Anyone who believes that there is any large class of people who have nothing at all to complain about right now is ignorant. Simple as that. If they are young, this is entirely forgivable (but we want a word with their teachers), if they are not young, we can’t help recognizing that this ignorance is the consequence of choices they have made, to deliberately withhold their humane compassion, based upon a notion about the moral value of a general category.
This is called bigotry – and it is wildly popular on both the left and the right. Absolute shite in all cases too, whatever the target.
We should remember that public hangings and burnings of heretics used to be incredibly popular events. There were plenty of merchants with souvenirs, snacks and drinks on offer – a genuine festival air. Hooray, we can all hate together today – what could possibly be more fun – or a better social bonding experience?
I mentioned before that Jane Goodall strikes me as a heroic humanist and scientist because she spent years as a humanist trying to refute her findings that higher primates in the wild regularly engaged in warfare against neighbouring groups, hoping that the results were due to contamination from the study itself, or something artificial about the conditions she was observing.
Those years of hard effort at self skepticism on principle were impressive – but she became a truly heroic scientist when she finally did publish her findings – even though they upset centuries of (racist) ‘sweet-savage’ romanticism – and her own strong philosophical and emotional preferences. No, capitalism doesn’t make otherwise entirely innocent humans go to war – though it absolutely does love to make tons of money, every time industrial killing can be promoted – we moderns just really like to do both war and greed in combination.
What we wish is a sort of creative imagining at best. A ghost which we feel strongly about, but isn’t even fully resolved inside our own head – and gets vaguer with every pass-along generation until the replicated errors overwhelm the original message.
What is true can be shared with everyone, because it is just as true for them, every time they check for themselves.
I wonder – did the Enquirer ever run a quiz “What Late Night Show you enjoy most, reveals your secret inner personality”
When I first moved out at age twelve, I found an old black and white tube TV in the garbage – actually I found two, but managed to get one of them working pretty well, only after I spot-welded my favourite screwdriver to the better candidate by arc-ing the flyback transformer! (Hey, what’s 20KV between friends, right? Answer in this case? EDUCATIONAL!) ;o)
Next thing I did was take my newspaper route profits (all eighty one cents an hour of them, by my calculations) and head to Radio Shack! An affordable and reliable stop for all kinds of electronic parts and tools – a genuine geeks wonderland in fact – very much missed (and like the even longer ago lost Heathkit, a para educational support of enormously unappreciated value).
Of course they had plenty of antennas on offer, and I had already got some results from a cheap FM dipole (that old “flat, two-wire T” we all used to tape to the wall behind the stereo), but I was big on calculating value/per back then, so when I saw they sold fifty foot spools of that same flat wire, I could not resist. I made a giant antenna around all four walls of the bedroom I shared with my roommate, and the two of us felt incredibly decadent watching Buffalo TV every night without any cable bill, and especially sophisticated for watching Carson.
Back then (mid seventies) Johnny Carson’s show pulled in a huge unified audience – left and right, upscale and working class. He had something to please everyone. Celebrities raised their profile and his ratings at the same time, and many comedians and musicians had their careers officially ‘made’ by a successful appearance on his very carefully mass market show.
Nothing like that show now exists on television. Some sports do still draw fairly wide groups together, but the conversation and exchange there tends to be rather limited. Structured in advance, like the rules of the game itself.
I saw an interview with Carson once where he talked about how his monologue jokes had to change over the years. He said when he started out he could make a joke about the minority whip in the senate, and everyone would get it and laugh, because people were actively interested in how they were governed, and who exactly was doing what to (or for) them. Engaged citizens.
By the time he wound up his show, the writers weren’t even sure they could rely on people remembering who the last president was.
Now here’s something weird. Looking back on reruns of his show today, I can’t stand it! So much of it feels fake and shallow, and you can tell that Ed and Johnny really did not like each other very much. There were many great performances, to be sure, but a lot less great talk than my childhood mind was sure it remembered. To a modern eye, the many compromises made to stay firmly in the centre and hold an “Everyone” audience look like intolerable concessions to mediocrity.
But what happened when the audience started to split apart? When, over time, the institutions which were once mass market broadcasters became target-market narrowcasters instead (quite deliberately, to chase the best possible rate of return they could see in the numbers). We stopped having hosts who seem pleasant but fake to everyone, and started having people we felt represented us better (more flatteringly). And these appealing new post-middle hosts in turn, began to welcome not equally respected guests, but instead friends and enemies.
I have to confess that I hate Jay Leno with a special passion. I want to say I hate him because he single-handedly damaged the stand up comedy ecosystem, and made it much harder for new comics starting out – which is true – but the fact is, I found out that deplorable stuff about his early career only because I already hated him, and was curious if I could find a better than emotional reason, to back me up.
What I hated about his TV act was that he spent all of his time sneering at anyone younger than a boomer. “Ha ha, those stupid whiners, when we were kids we only had…” constantly showing complete contempt to others, and celebrating that contempt with his audience. To me, I always thought about all the child abusing boomers I knew laughing in delight – and how much they all needed crowbar dentistry.
What do kids have to complain about anyhow – crazy rents, no more careers, no more pensions, no hope of job or housing security, lousy and horribly overpriced education leading to debt for life, a massive infrastructure deficit (thanks to boomers voting to make everything someone else’s problem) and a collapsing environment. Stupid spoiled ungrateful whiners obviously, right?
Pretty much borderline sociopathy really – every night – and it not only made him obscenely rich, it made sneering the new gold standard model.
Of course the big broadcasters have completely lost their old audience dominance, but we still very happily sort ourselves into cultural groups based upon who sneers in a way we find most appealing – never stopping to wonder if we aren’t being the whiny brats ourselves!
“People who I have chosen not to care about shouldn’t complain,” is clearly something only an asshole can say repeatedly. When they say it with a great big self-satisfied smile, they are a delusional and quite possibly even a dangerous asshole, because they are inviting us to celebrate the very worst instincts built-in to our basic selves (evil capacities shared also with chimpanzees at their worst).
Anyhow, the statement itself is a complaint of the most ignorant and hostile sort. An example of what it pretends to be refuting.
I’m not sure who first said “The opposite of a petty truth is false, but the opposite of a great truth is also true” but it really works here especially well, because the fact is that gratitude is ESSENTIAL TO LIFE. Unless you actually want to be bitter cruel and unhappy every hour day and year until you die.
The trick is that you don’t ever prove your own gratitude, or loyalty, or goodness, or helpfulness (or rightness, or social-justitude) by denouncing the failings of others. You do it by living a positive example of your own gratitude (etc) – or you do not ever in any way do it.
Our opinions, our feelings (no matter how passionate) our approvals, celebrations and withholdings – these happen only as movies projected on the inside of our skulls – that is not the world, that is the small blurry window we view it from – and we can make this window clearer and bigger.
But only if we are trying to be smarter, stronger, more capable, kinder, wiser and better – all of which are the exact opposite of trying to stay angry, to win every fight (even where we have encountered better information than we had – which means defending our ignorance) to sneer at people about whom we are largely ignorant, and insist that their needs cannot possibly be valid compared to those of special tribe B.
Like I said at the opening – less like a sneering narcissistic overgrown brat, more like a striving, modest, open, curious and helpful adult.
I must fairly allow that all of the comforting majorities are still to be found in the land of the miserable rabid overgrown infantile – you can even pick your favourite flavour from a vast array, to best suit your own personal snark aesthetics. But despite all the difficulty involved in shucking-off the truly heavy and persistent yoke of tribalist acculturation, I swear that genuine old-fashioned laughs, loyalty and love are all more easily found and fully enjoyed on the other (out) side of those blindingly tall and depressingly grey, self-constructed prison walls of sneering-brat dogma.
And now once again – here are a couple of incredibly brilliant people making far bigger points, much better than I do (or could)! ;o)
Caitlin Johnstone is a brilliant social and political critic – scathing and courageous – but offending only to increase clarity, not ever for cheap-shot catharsis.
Her Substack posts are always smart, challenging, informed and even when you disagree – stimulating! A fantastic antidote for “I just read what they put in front of me” journalism, and the corporate experts they rely (if not dote) on, constantly spinning everything their way.
Matt Taibbi is not just fearless but funny! You would want to compare him to Hunter Thompson anyhow, even if he hadn’t held that manic great’s job as chief investigative reporter at Rolling Stone for many years. Since he’s gone independent, he seems to be taking on bigger and bigger targets, and having more and more fun doing it. A great exemplar for the lift we get, when we shuck the tribalist leash.