Other Opinions #55 – I was wrong. You were wrong too. Admit it.


Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.


Charging the Self-Trust Battery

In my post last month on Authentic Service and Self-Improvement, one of the aspects of the model I presented was security. This is what I had to say:

It is not enough just to know yourself, know your beliefs, and live authentically. To be secure in yourself is also to know why, to have trust in yourself. When you understand not just who you are but why, then you can stand firm against the people who will try to change you, and instead change when you think it is right for you.

Over the past month, as I have attempted to live out this philosophy, I have found this part… difficult. It feels, on a normal day, like I am secure; I rest my self-image on firm foundations, and approach the world with confidence. But this security is an illusion. It is easy for something seemingly trivial to upend this confidence and leave me insecure, unsure, and alone.

At the company where I work, we use the metaphor of a trust battery for dealing with other people, but it works just as well when applied to the self. Unsurprisingly, my trust battery with myself is very low. I still get through life just fine most of the time because I can draw power from external sources: praise and affirmation from other people, my position at my workplace, my possessions. But when these are stripped away, or even merely threatened, I have no personal trust battery to fall back on, and I become lost.

For a lot of people, their self-trust is anchored in a permanent, intimate relationship of some kind, either with a god or with another human being. These relationships, while technically external, provide a base of unconditional acceptance that allows an actual self-trust battery to grow. They act both as anchor and as safety net. It’s nice work if you can get it, but it’s not for everyone.

If you are single, and an atheist, then you have no such relationship to rely on. Without a base of unconditional acceptance, you may try to charge your trust battery on conditional social acceptance, but you can’t actually do that. As long as the juice is flowing you feel fine, but one misstep and your acceptance is revoked. It’s only when the energy stops that you realize your battery is still nearly empty. This is obviously fragile, but also severely limiting: it is the people who feel comfortable defying convention once in a while who are able to change the world. When your power comes from conditional acceptance, you quickly learn a Pavlovian fear response to not fitting in, and it becomes even harder to deviate.

Charging a self-trust battery ex nihilo is hard. It requires discipline, so that you can trust your behaviour, and brutal self-honesty, so that you can trust your mind. It requires a deep commitment to values over emotions, and most importantly it requires a core belief that charging the battery is important. That the strange and beautiful kind of zen which results from a full battery is a state worth achieving. That before you can trust the universe, you must first trust yourself.

Even with all of these things, it’s still easy to fall into the trap of running on conditional acceptance. It’s right there, the quick win, the shortcut, the bad habit. If charging your battery is hard, then remembering that it needs charging is harder. But if you don’t then one of these days a storm will isolate you, and you’ll be left without power at all.

We all have to weather the occasional storm. Do it with the lights on.

Other Opinions #54 – The Problem With ‘Privilege’


Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

I agree with more of this one than I thought I might, given the title. Worth reading for liberals and conservatives alike.

Power is a very messy abstraction.

Good Faith

Scott Alexander recently wrote:

If you just lack that fundamental understanding that people really thinking different from you is possible, then every time someone does something you wouldn’t, you’re going to interpret it as you + secretly evil. 

The number of people in the world who are actually secretly evil is so tiny it can basically be ignored. The number of people who think differently, have had different life experiences, or otherwise don’t understand and value the world like you do is enormous (pretty much 100%). Please don’t mistake the latter for the former.

When you see the world differently from somebody, you have to ASSUME GOOD FAITH. This is not a “withholding judgment” thing that “well, maybe they’re not actually evil”. Assume they’re just not evil, and you will be surprised to find yourself proven right. Good faith leads to good debate, which leads to good understanding, which leads to the dark light side.

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Other Opinions #53 – Disputing Definitions



Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

Both links are excellent exploration of a common problem, but I think they miss a case. Sometimes, when people argue over the definition of a word, it is because there is an argument over value coming along for the ride.

Consider, specifically, a debate I witnessed recently over the definition of “racism”. Is racism only “prejudice based on race” (which I grant is pretty intuitive), or is it more completely defined as “prejudice based on race, when combined with structural power” (which is more what this article argues)?

Now, as in the case of “if tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” there isn’t any underlying disagreement about how the world really is. Both parties agreed that prejudice based on race exists, and that sometimes it is combined with structural power. Both parties were also fairly rational people, unlikely to get sucked into a pointless argument over definitions.

The disagreement, I think, was over the ethical implications. “Racism” is a heavily loaded word, and in this context I think it ended up being shorthand for “something wrong”. One party was arguing that any “prejudice based on race” is ethically wrong, whereas the other party was arguing that prejudice based on race is only ethically wrong when combined with structural power. That’s a really interesting argument to have, but it can’t happen if people think it’s just about the definition of “racism” instead.

All My Childhood Heroes

It is perhaps ironic that, with all the crazy things going on in the world this year, the thing that has most shaken my faith in humanity is the news of yet another messy Hollywood divorce. It wasn’t even high-profile or particularly tabloid-worthy; if it hadn’t been for Google News’ creepily detailed knowledge of my tastes I might not even have found out (edit: it’s getting wider attention now, so I definitely would have found out, but anyway).

Why are all my childhood heroes terrible people?

It’s not like I have that many of them. I am a staunch believer in the fact that nobody’s perfect, and that getting caught up in hero-worship isn’t good for anyone involved. Even so, it is hard to avoid the occasional dalliance with the idea that a few chosen people must just be… special. Blessed by whatever gods that be with a magic touch, able to create or achieve magnificent things beyond the ken of mere mortals like myself.

Nor is it that I am indiscriminate in my tastes. Nobody is terribly surprised when a flaky reality TV star turns out to have cheated, or the Kardashians end up on the front of another tabloid paper. The culture of celebrity attracts narcissists like flies to honey, and the result is eminently predictable. Instead, my heroes have been people who achieved great things first, often repeatedly, before (if ever) being swamped by their fame. Indeed, retaining a sliver of normalcy and control over their personal life despite increasing fame is often one thing that endears me to them further.

And still.

The wheels of justice grind slowly, but grind they do. Eventually, it seems, all of my heroes will be brought low in one way or another, and every time it happens my faith is shaken.

From the outside view, there are a couple of conclusions we can draw. First, that I am just generally terrible at judging people’s character. It doesn’t seem to matter how confident I am that you’re a good person, I’m probably wrong. I’m sorry.

Second, and more importantly, outward behaviour seems to be no guide to character (this would explain why I’m such a terrible judge). It doesn’t matter how many years of service, how many excellent speeches, how many awards won; inevitably it seems that the truth will out: people are scum all along. The longer their time in my good graces, the better they were at hiding and pretending to be something else, nothing more.

It is said that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Perhaps that is all that is going on here, but if so then I must ask a more difficult question: am I any better? My self-image believes strongly in my own moral character, but that is an inside view. Since at this point it seems no human being is immune to the corrupting influence of power, the outside view suggests that neither am I.

The moral question then becomes: would you rather be good, or strong?