The Spiritual Is Never The Other

I have argued elsewhere that the word “spiritual” is very difficult to parse. When it means pertaining to a ghost, that is, to some alleged residue of a former human, it is almost comprehensible as a name for something that does not actually exist, but otherwise it seems to be mostly a pointless synonym of either “emotional” or “ethical”. That is, having a “spiritual experience” usually means having an emotional high, whereas acting “unspiritually” means doing something wrong, and we already have words for both ideas.

This applies, of course, only to non-tactical usages. For the main purpose of the word “spiritual” lies in one-upmanship, in a claim to see, know or understand something that you cannot, because you are not as “spiritual” as wot I am. This is sometimes parlayed into a pecuniary receivable, while sometimes the point-scoring is considered sufficient in itself.

It is high time that the human race collectively resolved that whenever someone makes this claim, they should not be pleaded with to concede us some human worth, or even argued with, but treated like any other kind of malignant parasite.

(Fiddle date-stamp to 22 Feb 2010)

Posted on October 9, 2017 at 19:04 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion As Emotional Tech

On Morality and Environments

According to Mark Hauser of Harvard, human brains have a separate morality module. We learn, however different morality packages in different environments. Individualism and confrontation are the appropriate responses to a stable environment, he says, while collectivism and conformity to an unstable one. Well, he seems to be thinking of the instability in terms of resource-poverty, where we all pull together to survive. I wonder whether he has considered another kind of unstable environment, one in which preaching of individualism and confrontation has led to a society based on maximum short-term extraction? Or would he consider that a stable one, in that the rich stay rich and the poor starve in an entirely predictable manner?

(Fiddle date-stamp to October 25, 2009)

Posted on September 28, 2017 at 18:54 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, Messing With The Heads Of The Prey

On Authorised Nosiness Objects

Anyone who keeps their ears open in the public space is condemned to hear astonishingly mean and selfish things said by parents to their allegedly beloved offspring. A social worker I once knew reported that the middle-class mother actually answered questions while the underclass mother generally replied to them with a “Shaddup or I’ll belt ya one”, and that this might have something to do with child intelligence.

But it is not all about threats of violence. Parents complain about adolescents mumbling “Nuffink” or “Dunno” to intrusive questions that no adult would accept from another. In particular adults ask “Why?” questions to which no actual explanation of reasons why is solicited or listened to, as the question form is merely a disguise for a “You’re not-OK” demarche. The other day, for instance, I heard a mother ask, for this special value of the verb, her teenage daughter, “Why must you wear a hood?” (The language of “must” rather than “do”, by the way, is a giveaway to gamy nastiness, and is closely related to the overuse of “always”.)

It suddenly occurred to me that here was a new item for the list of bad reasons for having children that was always at the back of my mind. The desire for unreasonable control over the minutiae of others’ behaviour is not necessarily a response to having a teenager who can get herself into trouble unless intrusive questions are asked. Rather, it may be one of the motivations for embarking on reproduction in the first place. Because only then are you assigned a designated victim who has to suck down whatever you hand out.

(Fiddle date-stamp to August 3, 2009)

Posted on September 21, 2017 at 17:50 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment

The End Of The Road For Equality

The other day a BBC journalist was making or reporting a case for our concept of “equality” being a horrible muddle, confusing equality of opportunity with equality of outcomes. Well, duh, this used to be Political Ideas 101. Of course they are two different things! The right to compete on equal terms strictly implies the possibility of losing the contest. The journalist went on to claim, with an air of making a conceptual breakthrough, that people did not want equality in the sense of rewards being handed out to everyone irrespective of effort, as in Alice in Wonderland’s caucus-race, where everyone wins and everyone gets prizes. What they wanted instead was fairness, which is not at all the same thing. Duh again.

Human beings do indeed seem programmed for fairness or justice. You can see this in children, who would rather be properly punished for something they have done than mildly rebuked for something they have not done. Children do not like freeloaders either. The socially corrosive effect of inequality, the journalist argued, came not from people achieving different incomes from working hard, while the lazy rotted in poverty, but from one person working hard and prospering while another worked just as hard and starved. It came from opportunities being unequal for no fault of the individual concerned, it came from the game being rigged. “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded.”

Traditionally, what we called socialism was ambivalent about this. In its theory it could sound surprisingly like an uncorrupt capitalism and the economist’s dream of “perfect competition”. “He who does not work, neither shall he eat”, said both St. Paul and Lenin, but later on, political doctrines were tailored to the workshy bohemians who derived their sense of entitlement not from noble birth but, in the Romantic manner, from allegedly superior souls. To his shame, in his youth Hugo was one of these, believing in the “lifestyle” of living on the dole, but he is all growed up now. It was undoubtedly people like him, and even more the hippies, who sterilised the whole idea of socialism for the working men and women for whom it was originally created. Wanting the just fruit of their labours, but not to have to share it with bums, they gave ear instead to the people who had been rigging the game and ripping them off since the dawn of time, but had now learned how to offer them a fairness they had no intention of delivering.

Recent years have seen a yet deeper perversion. Since equality of opportunity means the right to enter a fair competition, you might lose, and that would never do. So instead you demand equality of outcomes, whereby losing any game becomes ipso facto proof of the rules being rigged. Should you win the game, on the other hand, then that is evidence of your superiority to those you have out-competed. You switch between the two paradigms, the right to play and the right to win, hailing equality as long as it works in your favour and not a second longer.

Nay, you can go further still, and demand perfection of outcomes, whereby anything unsatisfactory in your life becomes ipso facto proof of you being oppressed. Finally you can enact that one of your fundamental rights is freedom from blame and responsibility, so that “equality” means, no longer what it says on the tin, but a blessed state of having everything you want and nothing you do not want, for the first time since you were in the womb.

(Fiddle date-stamp to February 1, 2013)

Posted on September 13, 2017 at 22:10 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, A Theory Of Everybody

Open The Skull And Take It Out!

Somebody called John Allen Muhammad has identified a need to train a “new generation of black minds”. I am all for more training of black people to use their minds better, as I am all for more training of white, red, yellow and polka-dotted people to use their minds better. But I wonder whether we now need to fear that he, or just silly people in his audience, are going to posit that “the black mind” is something inherently different from the white mind, in the same way as some hold that male and female minds are wired differently. And then I wonder in what this difference will be said to consist.

(Fiddle date-stamp to March 22, 2011)

“The Goodness Of Our Hearts”

Many people have observed that anyone who starts a sentence, “To be honest with you”, is just about not to be. If professional con-men do this as well as amateur liars, then we have even less excuse for losing our money, but perhaps it is a beginner’s mistake. If this is made by some residual conscience that requires over-correction, perhaps in order to convince the speaker that he is not in fact a villain as much as to convince the victim of his lies, we might look for the same mechanism elsewhere.

I would nominate, therefore, the way parents belonging to what has so disgustingly been called the Greatest Generation used to praise their own motives in a manner that ought to have fallen foul of the Christian humility they attempted to impose on others. For, whenever they gave anything to their children, they invariably claimed that it was being done “out of the goodness of our hearts”. This was true even when the self-interest shone brightly through. As in the liar example, perhaps it was meant to convince themselves rather than their children, who became quite resistant even if they could not analyse the bullshit verbally.

For the human need at the top of the pyramid that Maslow ought to have described is “undeserved self-esteem”. The Greatest Generation’s impudent daily boasting about the goodness of their hearts could hardly have been motivated by anything other than a pre-emptive strike against a deeply submerged awareness that their hearts were not in fact good. When they heard from Jeremiah 17:9 that, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked,” their self-conceit was proof against the Word of God applying to them.

(Fiddle date-stamp to August 4, 2011)

Posted on September 3, 2017 at 19:22 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment

The Smoke And The Small Screen

The other day I was looking down on the city from the lower slopes of our ruling mountain, in exquisite weather. After a night’s rain the air was about the clearest I had ever seen it. There was no sign of any pollution. This reminded me of the old nickname for London, “The Smoke”, and how people used to use that name as a compliment. For lack of belching smokestacks could mean only the absence of economic activity. Would a time-traveller from the 1800s, therefore, think that we were languishing in a great depression, or whatever they called it then?

I remembered also the way futuristic illustrations used to take dense vehicular traffic, such as the Tōkyō freeways featured at the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, as a metonym for life itself, cf. my essay, “Gosh, Wow, Aircars!” That being so, with the roads below me very far from jam-packed, I wondered whether some other time-traveller, this time from the 1950s, would pronounce this city “dead”.

If we are right to consider the lack of smokestacks and the lack of cars six abreast to be good things, rather than symptoms of poverty and backwardness, the third question I posed to myself on the hillside that day was what new mistake we might be making to follow those made in the eighteenth century and the Fifties. What might we be confusing with Life itself? The candidate that came immediately to mind was the smartphone. I hoped that, just as we now prefer clean air to reeking chimneys, humanity might one day learn to prefer the real world around it to the flickering screen.

Extending Demophiles

In his quasi-medieval dialogue “On Religion”, Arthur Schopenhauer had the character Demophiles point out the immense difference “between your man who is learned, versed in the art of thinking, and enlightened, and the dull, clumsy, sluggish, and indolent consciousness of humanity’s beasts of burden. Their thoughts have once for all taken the direction of concern and interest for their own livelihood and cannot be moved in any other direction.”

He was, of course, right about the impossibility of moving the dullard’s thoughts once taken, but – perhaps misled by his merchant background – he erred in assuming that concern for livelihood must be their main direction. How about, for instance, saying that, “Their thoughts have once and for all taken the direction of concern for their beautification?” Of course, for many people their beautification is very much part of their livelihood; but not for all, and the others thus have less excuse.

Alternatively, what if we were to talk about the unthinking person’s “dull, clumsy, sluggish, and indolent consciousness of the Other’s responsibility for everything that may befall them?” That would speak even better to our own time, in which one of the great global industries is the proliferation of excuses.

But Schopenhauer would probably agree with the more general formulation, that the dullard cannot be moved from concern for his next short-term manoeuvre, even when this compromises his ultimate goals. Why, that would give us the very definition of the human animal!

(Fiddle date-stamp to December 2, 2013)

Posted on August 11, 2017 at 18:38 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, The Anatomy Of Stupidity

Disabling The Antivirus

According to Jefferson Duarte of Rice University, creditworthiness is something that human beings are equipped to detect in others’ faces, even from photographs. Moreover, he says, shifty physiognomy is independent of facial beauty, obesity, race or any other category. Given that recognition of dishonesty is part of our evolutionary behaviour suite, successful scamming must require that this recognition be first disabled. The psychology profession is hereby invited to study the methods in which society softens up the victims for being conned.

One obvious method is to “un-teach” our children, training them to “un-recognise” the shiftiness that Duarte says is visible even in photographs. This is best done by installing some malicious override code. For example, Hugo attributes his lifelong distrust of men in suits to a mother who, when informed that so-and-so was a nogoodnik, responded, “How can you say that, dear? He’s so nicely dressed!” A complete explanation would then analyse what exactly she gained from attempting to disarm her child in the face of the world’s con-men – most of whom, and the most successful, naturally wear suits. I doubt she knew any professional investment consultants or other high-stakes grifters, but then these were probably well-integrated into the class to which, as a middle-class climber, she needed to suck up.

(Fiddle date-stamp to September 19, 2010)

Beware Female Praise

Philosophers of the logico-linguistic or Oxford tradition have spilled a lot of ink discussing what it means to call something “good”. Are we judging the good man under some objective standard of value that may have nothing to do with our interests, recognising his status in a transcendent ethical realm? Or are we perhaps merely making a noise of subjective approval, like when we eat something tasty and go “Mmm”? Or are we perhaps recognising his conformity to something external, but a something strictly related to our purposes. For instance, we call a physical object “good” when it answers to what we need it for. When we call a man good comes to the same thing as when we call a screwdriver good – he is fit for purpose.

Which can only mean, fit for our particular purpose. Although he is not generally studied in Philosophy 101, Friedrich Nietzsche may serve to remind us that ethics are not just about ourselves and the passive objects of our value judgements. They are a three-handed game, for us, the objects and another person who has his purposes for us. The point of our having an ethical standard may not be, as Aristotle would have held, that we become wise and truly happy ¬– the point may be that we are then more ready to give this other guy what he wants. Who wants us to possess the virtue of trust? The con-man, of course. If truthful people are more ready to believe what they are told than are habitual liars, the grifter would like us to be virtuously honest, so that he can better sucker us.

With this in mind, we should reflect that being called a “good man” may make us feel warm inside but may actually be a bad sign. Certainly we know that when parents called us a “good” boy, they meant an obedient one, or one that raised their social value in the eyes of their peers. This was all that many parents ever cared about. For us to become “good” in some Aristotelian or theological sense that would stay with us for life, after they were no longer able to enjoy the brownie points, was well beyond their interests or even comprehension.

But even after such self-interested commenders have had their day, the program is still there to be run by someone else. Thirst for approval by the mother becomes thirst for approval by some other woman. She knows that she can say, “You are a good man” and we will roll over to have our tummy tickled. Our task is, therefore, to be on our guard against the grifter saying “good dog” and patting us on our head whenever we do something that serves her interest, while at the same time endeavouring to live an ethical life for its own sake. For that is not remotely the same thing.

(Fiddle date-stamp to September 1, 2016)