You got me there

In address, reflection on June 27, 2012 at 12:00

You, there. You have exposed some rusty cogs in my thoughts processes, and I friendly despise you for that. The rest of the engine has awakened again by the way, after so many years of dusty oblivion; I guess I should thank you for that. But today there was something off: the engine was heating, abnormally. There were too many things going on. I need to separate the chaff from the grain.

To get the first thing out of the way; you say that I am wrong to assert that your expertise and sharpness entail a position of reference, and thus of responsibility. Well, do as you wish, care or don’t, although you may one day discover that the position has its perks.

The second thing is our views on human governance. I could reduce the essence of our arguments up to and including today to a sloppy exchange of political positions: we started by agreeing that our current implementation of social-democracy is unsustainable and that we need an alternative; from there you try to sell your intuition that:

  1. the further clustering of human populations will continue, because clustering is per se desirable; and that
  2. consequently, the level of skill and expertise needed to sustain the life of all individual people in clusters will continue to rise over time; and that
  3. as this level rises, fewer and fewer people will be able to reach that level and high specialization will be unavoidable; and therefore that
  4. the current pseudo-egalitarian society, where people are supposedly interchangeable and can in theory serve all roles, is bound to disappear, crumbling under its own inefficiencies.

To get that out the way, I see the logic in there and I will think more before phrasing an opinion on the argument itself. In the mean time, as a thought experiment I will continue to thoroughly enjoy trying to envision with you what are the consequences, what alternative forms of governance can account for this development, and what our favorite fiction authors have to say about it. (Speaking of which: did you read Cory Doctorow? He’s relevant here.)

Now, there are three more things that got me running and which I could not simply get out of the way.

The first is my feeling of discomfort at the realization you argument may be correct. I have a distinct, acute dislike for the concept of a non-egalitarian society, whatever its form and however it makes people happy. It just so happens that I am certain that it would hurt, that it would be ethically uncomfortable.

The second thing is that I could feel a distinct emotional urgency to consider this topic extremely, fundamentally important. The feeling was close to this small voice at the back of our head which tells us when a small idea needs attention because it may have a potential we have not consciously realized yet; only much, much louder.

The third thing is that I had the distinct feeling today that you don’t care anywhere as much as I do about this.

So as I was biking home today, I was troubled. If you don’t care, that means that either you know something I don’t, from which you have resolved these issues by yourself; or you’re wrong somewhere, in which case I should find a way to either make you care more and/or make you realize that inequality hurts.

So I had to sort it out. I walked my way slowly backwards from the end, but here’s what’s going on in the right order.

Talking with you, today and also in multiple previous instances, has achieved to convince me that my certainties about what constitutes “good” human governance are irrational; for you have successfully invalidated my two main arguments. You are right that it is not a matter of people not sufficiently caring for each other–we can trust our fellow humans to care just enough about their immediate peers that a network effect will not leave too many out. You are also right that it is not a matter of lost opportunities, for example me fearing  for people not getting a chance to try out something they might be, unexpectedly, good at. Creative goodness is bound to happen anyways, and egalitarian public sponsoring via subsidies is unsustainable. You have made me realize that my certainties were grounded in either improperly justified assumptions, faith, or misguided morals, although I do not know yet which of the three applies. I promise I will work on that.

Once that is sorted out, it explains why you don’t care too much. You don’t have ready alternatives, but you also see no certainty about what constitutes “good” or “bad” at the scale of mankind; so you’d rather go about your life, caring instead about closer term issues; for example, training yourself to be successful, as this will ensure that you stay at the top of the food chain as the inefficiencies in our social systems get weeded out over time.

Now, even with that sorted out, I had an issue remaining: the topic stills feels damn important to me. The evidence you have presented did not appease me; to the contrary, it raised a serious case of cognitive dissonance. So I dug that up. It was quite easy. On the one side, I am not bothered too much by the realization that my certainties were unfounded. I have too much training as a scientist to care about that. Also, I clearly see your rational progression, from your intuition that social ethics are unfounded, to your personal choice to focus on your immediate surroundings and not care about humans outside of your “Dunbar village.”  Actually, I even share the intuition, so I should feel quite comfortable following your lead on the consequences. On the other hand, I now realize I have a deeply-rooted aversion for people like you who reserve their empathy to a chosen few and deliberately choose to not care about the rest, no matter what reason you have to explain it. Even when, as in this case, I agree with the premise and the argument and thus should have no issue with it. It just feels really, really wrong.

So there, I have an intuition that is highly unproductive. I can’t go about and invalidate your entire perspective, the premises of which I agree with, just because I feel wrong about the consequences. (Shame on me if I did, for that would put me in the same world of pain as Christian homosexuals who keep their mantra “but, God say it’s so wrong” even after their senses scream at them that their first gay sexual experience was just very, very right. But I digress.) Anyway, I now have to sort my stuff out separately, and I can promise I won’t let this intuition interfere with your point again.

All this to conclude that you were right again, as often. If you’re happy with the thought, you can stop reading here. What comes now is just personal stuff.

From then on, I can’t say I will be able to just drop this feeling and let it evaporate. It may take a while, and all I can do in the mean time is understand how it works and how to keep it under control. For what it’s worth, I already made some steps to understand where it comes from. That was kinda obvious too.

You see, I could describe my basic motivation about being consistently kind and polite, ie. “nice” with everyone and anybody, in a simplified form using the Moorish proverb: “don’t throw a dagger away, for it might strike you in the back later” and my own transposed version “if you see a dagger carelessly dropped, don’t keep it for later use and instead dispose of it and/or forget it.” Then I somewhat irrationally expect everyone else to follow the same rules, and I am routinely disappointed. The story of the experiment with the button that kills randomly other people, and in which you should think twice about other people “not caring enough about consequences,” lingers in my mind because it resonates with my own motivations.

Now these “rules” may seem quite arbitrary but they stem from my belief that most of the  pain felt in the world are invisible, unintended consequences of careless actions. More specifically, I believe that

  1. invisible pain is terrible, because it provides no feedback on the causative agent to prevent it from happening again; and that
  2. an action can cause lots of invisible pain (eg psychological pain, or physical but out of sight, etc), even if that consequence was not intended; and that
  3. lots of such actions occur.

and then it follows that everyone has a duty to be careful about what they say or do, so as to avoid unintended consequences.

Until today I missed the fallacy in my belief: point #1 does not stand. Because pain that is not intended should not last, for it is then tolerated and forgiven. Incidentally, but relevantly, I now remember I actually have a couple references to scientific studies which show that a subject learns to tolerate electric shocks quickly when they believe that the shocks are accidental, whereas tolerance is not developed if the subject believes the shocks are intentional. (Side note, less relevant: this is also why torture works) My train of thoughts today brought me again quickly and unavoidably to the origin of this belief: when I was a victim of bullying, and that lasted for a while, my parents actively trained me to believe that all the pain I felt was not really intended by the bullies. It was a poor attempt at reverse psychology: in theory, had they convinced me, I could have indeed tolerated and forgiven quickly.

The actual result, however, was far worse and not unexpected: faced with the unavoidable, repeated cause-effect relationship between the bullies’ actions and the pain, I rather learned how to a) become discreet and agreeable with my peers, for it tended to reduce the violent behavior and b) become competent intellectually, for that tended to attract the protection of adults. My parents were pacifists and intellectuals. Fuck them. I’d rather heard them teach me how to fight and not have wasted those subsequent years of physical weakness, which they had conditioned me to consider acceptable.

And now I have scars to attend to. Like a HIV+ patient dragged in life by a heavy schedule of pill taking, I will have to routinely and consistently beware of my scar-induced “intuitions” half of the time instead of enjoying 100% of my combined intellectual and emotional faculties, relaxing and enjoying life as I could.

And it probably means you shouldn’t trust me on my political opinions on social governance either. Unless you want a society that is very, very, very harsh about anything that remotely looks like bullying, including any form of inequality.


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