Imaginary oppression

I have little interest, really, in the ways different people excoriate  Richard Dawkins for his ignorance. However,  whenever I come across very clear rhetoric, I like to note it, and this one happens to concern Mr. Dawkins.

I guess Dawkins showed his support for Muslim feminists, but then he turned around and insulted them by not being careful with his language, and then another white guy jumped in, and the Muslim feminist insulted him, and then Dawkins was offended and said the remark was “a racist, sexist, bigoted thing to say.” Oh, no, Mr. Dawkins — that was an error on your part, as other liberal white males were careful to point out.

So, here’s the fascinating insight for me. The Muslim feminist had responded to Dawkins this way:

You can’t be racist to white people, also you can’t be sexist to men.

Yeah, white guys who were raised up with an implicitly universalist ethic get really angry when they read that. All kinds of objections spring to mind, including Bible verses, the Kantian categorical imperative, liberal political rhetoric about democratic equality, and conservative political rhetoric about equality under the law. It just sounds unfair that someone is allowed to punch you, repeatedly, and you are not allowed to hit back, even when being very careful to use exactly the same techniques.

It’s all about the so-called power structure, or “oppression”, as another white guy  explained:

What Dr. Dawkins apparently doesn’t know is that racism and sexism are about power and oppression, not about judgments and insults. When Salya says you cannot be racist to a white person, or sexist to a male, what she’s saying is that those comments cannot reflect or reify oppression. Salya’s words can never oppress Richard Dawkins, but Richard Dawkins’ words can absolutely oppress Salya, particularly when he insists that the right to represent Muslim women belongs in the hands of white atheist males.

Surprisingly, I accept this as a useful clarification on the use of terms. As a white male, I have always been perplexed by the polemical use of the terms “racist” and “sexist,” as if they were synonymous with “jerk.” I can see, though, that they are not merely judgmental and insulting, but also operate in a political context to undermine “power and oppression.” Of course I knew that was their purpose, but not that they could only be used in that context.

So, have we witnessed a little bit of progressive enlightenment for an old white male, even if I don’t feel guilty yet? Not quite. I’ve always been aware of privilege and social classes. Mostly I have squandered any privilege I may have derived from being a white, middle-class, US male, since I was perpetually baffled by the supposed benefits.

I tried (briefly) being empathetic with the “oppressed,” but really that is pointless unless one wishes to either attack the authorities directly or drop out of society entirely. Either way, there is no reciprocity from the oppressed, because a white male can never do enough to compensate for systemic oppression, therefore the oppressed owe him nothing.

So, I simply went back to being aware of the power structures, while not being really concerned about oppression as such. I’m afraid that “oppression” as a social force is too inchoate for me, and too tied up with social group boundaries and identification, such that I consider it largely imaginary.

Here’s the problem: brutality and unfairness happen to particular people, whereas oppression happens to a group of people, in aggregate and on average. No individual is oppressed; he is beaten, tortured, or insulted. Oppression is purportedly a matter of systematic injustice; but justice is measured by individual cases, and the system only exists in the form of laws or attitudes. Laws may be judged unconstitutional, unfair, cruel, etc., but they can only be unjust in particular applications. So, what is left are systematic attitudes.

Attitudes, however, are not determinative of actions. Ideas do not have consequences; behaviors do. People are responsible for their actions regardless of attitudes. The fantastic superstition about thought crime is that attitudes can be policed, and that this will result in just actions. However, this corruption of logic only has the desired result in the case of insecure, self-doubting losers, AKA white liberal men; the desired result being not “just actions,” but rather cowering, whimpering fear of a withering scolding from nonwhites and non-men.

So, anticipating an imaginary rebuttal, I will have my strawman point out that a society is fundamentally unfair to various classes of people who do not have authority. I say, so what? Every society I have lived in has been fundamentally unfair to me in some way, since I have not ever had absolute authority. I do not necessarily hold this against most of them, since I do not expect them to affirm all of my preferences and beliefs.

That, I believe, is the primary mode of oppression that most people experience, as distinct from particular incidents of unjust treatment: a society has failed to affirm all of their preferences and beliefs. The idol they worship has turned out to be an evil and capricious god who despises them. That is justice.

What is charisma?

A gift — not something earned, but acquired almost by accident. Yet not by accident, since it is entirely sensible in context. It seems to arise naturally and inevitably, expressed obviously in the fortunate, and perhaps after diligent cultivation in those who seek their fortune instead of finding themselves immersed in it already.

The gift is provided by someone else, to serve their purposes. What possible purpose it could serve, even the providentially fortunate must discover. With a flash of brilliance the gift can make others believe that the gifted one can move mountains. But if there is no love, the gifted one starts to sound annoying, like someone banging a pot to cover up a death rattle.

The spirited keeper of the gift can use it to build up others, to give them a new sense of life. This seems almost like passing on the gift, if the others start to show some of the same spirit. Yet they may still express their gift in different ways.

There is freedom in the gift; first, because it is a sign to others that the gifted one is obviously favored, and secondly, because the gifted one is free to act out of love and hope, rather than fear and despair.

Because the gifted one is obviously favored, other people are attracted to him, inexplicably and unconsciously at first. Some quickly realize the instrumental value of the gifted one, but most simply want to listen and touch, waiting for some word of instruction or guidance.

Without self-condemnation, the gifted one can feel the exaltation of being able to love those without the gift and not begrudge them anything. He can be gracious to the weak and sniveling, the ugly and scabrous, the repulsive, and the useless ones.

Of course, this leads the others to call the gifted one a teacher, someone who can show them a better way. They’ll start to crowd around him when he’s in public, expecting him to say something earth-shaking or controversial. The pressure to perform becomes enormous. It gets harder to carry on personal relationships.

So, the gifted one starts a blog. This way, his wisdom can be presented to the masses without the necessity of literally living among them. He can control who actually speaks with him, through comment moderation, and he has time to craft his pronouncements. He can keep his personal relationships private.

Eventually, the gifted one can create a little system to impart the knowledge of the gift to some who are less fortunate. Perhaps they will never have the gift itself, but at least they can practice their knowledge of it online. They will come because of the instrumentality of the gift, without developing the awareness of how to use it in love to build up others. And so, some of the followers will start banging the pot to cover up their death rattle.

But the gifted one goes on. Because he must be who he is: a natural ace.

——————————

On the day I was born
The nurses all gathered ’round
And they gazed in wide wonder
At the joy they had found

——————————

I broke a thousand hearts
Before I met you
I’ll break a thousand more, baby
Before I am through

——————————

I make a rich woman beg
I’ll make a good woman steal
I’ll make an old woman blush
And make a young girl squeal

——————————

And when I walk the streets
Kings and Queens step aside
Every woman I meet
They all stay satisfied

——————————

Well, I’m wanted by the men want to learn my line
I’m wanted by the women cause I love so fine
Wanted by the boys wanna learn my style
I’m wanted by the girls cause it drives ‘em wild

——————————

Well, I’m wanted by the men for the damage I’ve done
Wanted by the women cause I’m so much fun
I’m wanted by the boys want me to be their teacher
I’m wanted by the girls thinkin’ of their future

The Sentimentalized Corpse

Sometime after the first diagnosis of decrepitude, but before the first warning of imminent danger to my well-being, I developed a yearning to discover whether I had authentic sentimentality. Not reconstructed memories of actual events, that is, but rather remembered feelings that were associated with actual events, or else a lack of feelings associated with actual events.

The best way to accomplish this examination seemed to be by contacting old acquaintances and family members. In the past I had often examined artifacts of my life, turning them over and contemplating them in order to judge the authenticity of my sentimentality. If I could not discover a sentimental feeling, I discarded the artifact. However, I usually was able to discover a faint memory, a regret, a missed connection, an unrequited gesture of love, or maybe a strong imaginary attachment. I would therefore hide it away, secure in the knowledge that the artifact represented some part of me I could otherwise not see. This time I thought it was best to contemplate my artifacts of people, and then prod them to discover some kind of living flesh in the form of an emotional reaction.

What I found was almost invariably befuddlement and disdain from my subjects. I don’t know if this was due to their past experiences with me or my surgical indifference in the present as I carved away rotting flesh. A couple of times I got the reaction I expected, but nothing more; I attributed those to the other person’s limitations, the boundaries they had previously defined for themselves when dealing with me.

I also tested subjects for whom I had no sentimentality, to see if they held any sentimentality toward me or if interacting with them might provoke some sentimentality in me. In these subjects the reactions varied from hostile indifference to enthusiastic, yet superficial, interest.

In only one case did I get a lively and genuine reaction, one indicating a depth of feeling that had been covered over by scar tissue. This was a relationship that I needed to carefully remake and revivify, one that counted for something more than the amount of time I could devote to it.

In all the other cases, I concluded that any sentimentality was delusion and vanity. I could realistically evaluate the actual significance based on the other person’s authenticity, but there was no need for me to inflate the significance with some kind of artificial importance. The emotional impact had passed and any memories present to me now might as well be fictitious, since there was no “relationship” as such.

So much for sentimentality. Now I work to expunge it wherever it grows on a surface. Whenever it is applied to people, it objectifies them, and they despise it. If anyone did not despise it, I should suspect that person of unalloyed idealism, a kind of fainting, self-indulgent romanticism that would not support interaction or growth.

Moreover, I cannot assume that a lack of perception on my part means anything other than a lack of interest on another’s part. Unless, perhaps, they want to sentimentalize me. I don’t need that either.

Stereotype Threat

Because it’s a stereotype, it’s fervently believed by the Great and the Good that it absolutely can’t be true. That would mean that average people sometimes correctly notice patterns, and we can’t have people noticing things for themselves. It’s central to the dominant mindset that regular people can’t notice patterns. Whether “can’t” is used empirically or morally is left vague, with upholders of the conventional wisdom switching from one to the other.

Is “Stereotype Threat” mostly publication bias?

I have a longstanding aversion to non-associative thinking. I want to daisy-chain everything together into giant hyperlinked multidimensional arrays. That’s why I’ve always loved paranoid literature and random newsbits: not because I believe them necessarily, but because they make such pretty collages of semantic connections, sometimes poetic or pedantic, sometimes absurd, sometimes profoundly moving, and occasionally implying deeper meanings.

People who don’t do this naturally, or who do it but are not aware of it, or who throttle it through some kind of cultural filter, come up with little labels to dismiss associative connections, such as “stereotype”, “bias”, “racism”, “crazy”, etc. But everyone thinks this way whether they label it or not, and whether they categorize their findings or not. The problem is not that such an observation is biased, but that someone might believe it to be factual rather than interpretive. Even if it were factual, that would not make it true, especially if its truth were dependent on causality or some kind of statistical pattern.

It is supercilious to dismiss the observations of lesser-status minds as biased just because one is lacking in conviction and attachment; truly, the higher-status mind is just as biased even while it is floating free on the postmodern breeze. But its bias tends toward conspiratorial fantasies about socialist property confiscators, welfare cheaters, community organizers, thugz, and ugly homeless people. There is no social reward so deserved and fixed that a paranoid rich person cannot conceive of how to lose it swiftly, thrusting them into the depths of the seething masses who just can’t seem to game the system effectively.

Hurting Sheep

What’s important to grasp here is that the new terrorism does not draw its militants from any specific struggle in Somalia, or anywhere else for that matter. Rather, it draws upon a broad and deep disillusionment with modern society; it exploits the non-identity between society’s threadbare values and particular members. And it turns certain individuals upon society as a whole. Hence the new terrorism does not target the institutions of the state; it targets the institutions of civil society. In particular, it targets the embodiments of modern social life: a shopping centre in Nairobi, an office block in New York, a market in Baghdad.

Why Slaughter Shoppers

What’s important is to note that terrorism is not political in a goal-oriented sense. It is not reactionary, as in showing a desire to return society to a former condition; nor is it idealistic, as in trying to enact an ideal society. It has always been the same, despite the writer’s attempt to excuse communists of the past by suggesting that they had broader social concerns.

Terrorism has always ever had the sole function of provoking the governing authorities to action; it has always been motivated by a hatred of the ordinary people who tolerate the government; and it has always been primarily an occupation for psychopaths who can’t get jobs doing legitimate violent acts. That is why it is always connected, despite protestations to the contrary, with official paranoia and disproportionate responses, and thereby the hint of manipulation and fakery.

The Banality of the Crowd

The crowd is always wrong:

In “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” one of the most poignant and important works of 20th-century philosophy, Hannah Arendt made an observation about what she called “the banality of evil.” One interpretation of this holds that it was not an observation about what a regular guy Adolph Eichmann seemed to be, but rather a statement about what happens when people play their “proper” roles within a system, following prescribed conduct with respect to that system, while remaining blind to the moral consequences of what the system was doing — or at least compartmentalizing and ignoring those consequences.

A good illustration of this phenomenon appears in “Moral Mazes,” a book by the sociologist Robert Jackall that explored the ethics of decision making within several corporate bureaucracies. In it, Jackall made several observations that dovetailed with those of Arendt. The mid-level managers that he spoke with were not “evil” people in their everyday lives, but in the context of their jobs, they had a separate moral code altogether, what Jackall calls the “fundamental rules of corporate life”:

(1) You never go around your boss. (2) You tell your boss what he wants to hear, even when your boss claims that he wants dissenting views. (3) If your boss wants something dropped, you drop it. (4) You are sensitive to your boss’s wishes so that you anticipate what he wants; you don’t force him, in other words, to act as a boss. (5) Your job is not to report something that your boss does not want reported, but rather to cover it up. You do your job and you keep your mouth shut.

The Banality of Evil

This is the reason why ethics is not the same as morality:  because it entails subordinating the individual to the crowd. A standard of behavior is imposed on the will, not because it is right, but because the individual is needy. This is necessary for the lawbreaker, but not for the individual of conscience.

This is also the reason why anarchism is a necessary perspective:  because the crowd is always wrong, but especially when it is organized, purposefully driven, rule-bound, amoral, and political. Anarchism is not necessarily a political program or a way of life; it may be a perspective that recognizes the evil of banal complacency, of relinquishing moral judgment to party platforms and corporate identity.

Politics can be perfectly moral so long as it never involves compromising for emotional or social reasons; in other words, so long as it is enacted robotically, ruthlessly, and tyrannically, or else deceitfully, ruthlessly, and criminally. In such cases, the moral objective remains pure and idealistic, but only because the method is inhumane or unethical. If the method is humane, then the moral objective will be compromised by pluralism. If the method is ethical, then the moral objective will be compromised by the need to please the crowd, which is necessarily less rational than the individual.

A moral method, on the other hand, cannot achieve an arbitrary objective, such as a political purpose. The objective must be embodied in an ideal that transcends the existing system, one that will outlast it; otherwise the method will be compromised by the ethics of the crowd. Therefore, a moral method is implicitly anarchic and apolitical, and so may seem to be purposeless.

Attempts to reconcile this dichotomy force the individual to perfectly reflect the will of the crowd, or force the crowd to perfectly reflect the will of the individual. But since the crowd is less rational and less spiritual than the individual can be, the crowd is always wrong.

The obvious fact that the crowd is always wrong may lead one to the conclusion that a “superior” individual (that is, an “overcomer man”, an “ultimate man”, or a “man that comes after”) is obligated to control the crowd in some way. Thus, a radically egocentric moral position suggests that the crowd must be manipulated, coerced, dominated, herded, prodded, brainwashed, stunned, hogtied, slaughtered, sterilized, aborted, corralled, deceived, segregated, whipped, beaten, drugged, euthanized, cannibalized, sodomized, re-educated, imprisoned, crushed, purged, massacred, or otherwise civilized.

Ungrateful for Personas

I have been corresponding with someone who felt free to show me a set of opinions I hadn’t been aware of. These opinions seemed to me to be in opposition to the persona I had constructed for this person. So, now I am less likely to trust this person’s opinion on things outside of their area of expertise. In one sense, this may seem tragic, to lose my sense of the old persona; yet, now I have a fuller understanding of the person.

That seems to hold generally for relationships throughout life. The longer we hold on to a relationship, the more likely we will move from a persona-view, a two-dimensional facing of one side of a person, towards a three-dimensional view that will be more complicated, less comfortable, more difficult to articulate, more emotional, less comprehensible, more comprehensive, more offensive, and more risky. Trust will become less a matter of our ability to rationally analyze the persona based on the person’s ability to compartmentalize their thoughts and behaviors; it will depend more on our ability to accept the other person’s will to maintain integrity with us despite their own contradictions and missteps.

Likewise, I have tried out alternative parts of personas on people, to see how they react. Generally, no one likes it, perhaps because it is too disorienting for them. I have also tried eliminating my use of a persona, stripping down to a kind of existential skepticism. It leaves me with a feeling of free-fall and it is exhausting to communicate while in such a state of mind. I’m not sure it is possible to maintain, except as another persona, a kind of brutally honest persona that is able to articulate what seems to be genuine. Maybe pseudonymity is the natural state of mind for humanity, or maybe it is just me. Maybe there is something Freudian or Nietzschean going on, an encounter with my hidden animality that is supposed to impel me towards overcoming the man of today. No, we’ll have none of that.

The Davison model of true identity posits that integrity and civil discourse is maintained by asserting the primacy of a single persona, the “real” one acknowledged by civil authorities, and letting all referents accrue to it. However, most people seem to believe that the legal persona is the least likely candidate for true identity, and it’s obvious that it is the least interesting. At base, it requires the approval of the civil authorities and, reciprocally, one’s own approval of the civil authorities as arbiters of identity; so right away it is contrary to human nature. But far less appealing is the implication that somehow the presentation of the “whole” self, in the form of multifaceted referents, will somehow relieve everyone’s anxiety.

On the contrary, it is unlikely to relieve the anxiety of the person in question or of others who interact with him. It is not truly possible to be fully consistent in one’s person, since the self in itself is not axiomatic, but is rather organic, consisting of irrational assumptions and unconscious accretions. An axiomatic self, one that fully agrees with local convention and always functions predictably, is rather merely a persona. This persona may maintain the fiction of integrity and civility only so long as nothing disturbs it from behind, such as conflicting priorities or mixed feelings.

If the person in question has a strong will, favorable circumstances, and rigorous discipline, then the persona may accurately reflect this fact. That doesn’t change its status as merely a persona, nor does it guarantee consistency, which continuously depends on the will, the circumstances, and good habits of mind. Nevertheless, such a constructed persona could be trusted on a transactional basis and held accountable to a public ethic, as indeed public figures are.

This, it seems, is what the Davison model is driving at:  to make us all into public figures whose lives are openly accountable, with all contingencies and motivations flowing into the facing side, hoping that everyone we encounter will accept us holistically and forgive us for incontinence and imperfection. Yet, the human tendency seems generally to be in the opposite direction, towards flatness and reification of a persona until it is worn smooth, so that no one will have to encounter unexpected bumps or blemishes. Too much intimacy and contrasting feeling is disturbing, not because every persona is robotic, but because every persona is constructed in order to meet expectations. When expectations are met, trust is established, and people can go on without having to evaluate every interaction for subliminal meaning.

This works as long as life is divided into spheres of influence and privacy is maintained. Without privacy, personas bleed into each other accidentally, trust is lost, and there can be no implicit personal contract. The truth is that all contracts depend on the maintenance of a persona that performs the expected actions, and that this contractual persona is not necessarily the same as the person himself, unless the contract stipulates complete submission of the whole person. There are such contracts, but generally with the modern (Euro-American) notion of the self and private property, the whole-person contract seems anachronistic:  it evokes slavery, vassalage, marriage, Biblical covenants, eternal salvation, military duty, genetic determinism, blood brothers, mystical affinities, and tribalism. There is no necessary contradiction, but it runs counter to the entropy of modern living.