Ambiguity vs. contrarianism

I’m reading The Ethics of Ambiguity, which I probably should have done a while ago and which you should probably do at your earliest convenience. Despite the moderate philosophical jargon and the frequent references to Hegel, it’s really very practical. I don’t really see it cited much as a big important philosophy book, which I’m sure has nothing to do with the fact that it was written by a woman. Actually, the fact that philosophy has one of the biggest gender gaps out of anything really gives the lie to the whole story about men being good at numbers and women being good at words. The truth, obviously, is that men bully women out of any field they consider to be prestigious or important, or that is high-paying.

Anyway, I ran into some stuff that I thought was awfully relevant to certain modern-day issues. One of the things that’s become increasingly apparent via the internet is the fact that a lot of specialists are complete morons about anything outside of their specialty. As the saying goes, it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. Now that we’ve got Twitter giving people like Richard Dawkins the opportunity to mouth off about anything whenever they feel like it, doubt is increasingly being removed.

But the actual issue here isn’t new, as evidenced by the fact that de Beauvoir totally nails it:

“Almost all serious men cultivate an expedient levity; we are familiar with the genuine gaiety of the Catholics, the fascist ‘sense of humor.’ There are also some who do not even feel the need for such a weapon. They hide from themselves the incoherence of their choice by taking flight. As soon as the Idol is no longer concerned, the serious man slips into the attitude of the sub-man. He keeps himself from existing because he is not capable of existing without a guarantee. Proust observed with astonishment that a great doctor or a great professor often shows himself, outside of his specialty, to be lacking in sensitivity, intelligence, and humanity. The reason for this is that having abdicated his freedom, he has nothing else left but his techniques. In domains where his techniques are not applicable, he either adheres to the most ordinary of values or fulfills himself in a flight. The serious man stubbornly engulfs his transcendence in the object which bars the horizon and bolts the sky.  The rest of the world is a faceless desert.”

The fact that a specialist tends to rely on techniques which are not universally applicable is pretty straightforward. The insight here is how this error manifests itself. One option is as a “flight,” meaning a retreat from significance via dismissal. Anything to which the specialist’s techniques do not apply must by that very fact be meaningless. This is the most obvious problem with the New Atheists (or whatever we’re calling them now): anything which doesn’t fit into their schema is a “myth,” something that people should just get rid of. It’s even more obvious when it comes to science fetishists, who put the cart entirely before the horse: rather than defining science as the domain of the measurable, they wholly reject anything that isn’t measurable so as to be able to define science as everything.

This is also where the “fascist sense of humor” comes in: it makes it easier to dismiss things. Internet atheists have a constant boner for making fun of how dumb those silly fundamentalists are with their silly stories about angels and demons and their silly preoccupations with virginity and swear words, which conveniently keeps them from considering that maybe these things aren’t what religion is mostly about, that maybe in their blithe dismissal they’re actually missing something important. On the other hand, they’ll completely flip their shit on you if you point out that assuming your own position as the default and requiring people to argue you out of it is a fucking stupid way to communicate.

The second option is even more intriguing: outside of their specialty, specialists tend to revert to conventional values. Why should this be so? Any specialist is aware that the common understanding of their own discipline is usually oversimplified and often completely backwards. Dawkins, for example, could probably say quite a bit about the common understanding of evolution. Shouldn’t one be able to relate this same insight, that greater understanding often leads to a fundamental reassessment, to disciplines other than one’s own? Many find it odd when someone like Dawkins rejects the traditional superstitions of religion only to fall back on the traditional superstitions of white supremacy, or rejects the divine guidance of god only to fall back on the faux-divine guidance of Western imperialism.

But in fact, this is to be expected. Acknowledging the inapplicability of one’s expertise requires confronting the enormity of one’s limits as a finite human being. Someone who devotes their life to mastery of the scientific method must accept that, because of this devotion, there are things that they can never know. The temptation to overapply one’s techniques originates from the fear that the only alternative is nothing. But since these techniques aren’t actually applicable to everything, they don’t actually work. You actually can’t use science to learn about politics. The specialist is thus in a position where they must have an insightful perspective on some topic, but can’t actually develop one. Hence, conventional wisdom dressed up as contrarianism.

Speaking of contrarianism, de Beauvoir follows this attitude through to one of its natural developments:

“Nihilism is disappointed seriousness which has turned back upon itself. A choice of this kind is not encountered among those who, feeling the joy of existence, assume its gratuity. It appears either at the moment of adolescence, when the individual, seeing his child’s universe flow away, feels the lack which is in his heart, or, later on, when the attempts to fulfill himself as a being have failed; in any case, among men who wish to rid themselves of the anxiety of their freedom by rejecting the world and themselves.”

This not only explains the annoying phenomenon of teen contrarianism, but why this phenomenon is concentrated among the privileged. Naively, one might assume that the least oppressed people in a society, the people with the fewest obstacles and the greatest opportunities, would consequently be the least nihilistic. The problem is that a person who can choose to assume any burden tends thus to be “serious” in de Beauvoir’s sense of the term. A person – a white male – who can already do as he likes, who can freely choose to be a family man or a businessman or anarchist, evaluates each of these goals on their own merits, and finds them all wanting. Of course he does, because no real-world goal actually means anything by itself.

(Writing persona pro tip: de Beauvoir uses “man” and “he” as general referents for “person” because of language and the past and so forth. When I say “he,” it’s because I mean “he.”)

Meaning is found not in goals themselves, but in the transcending of limits. Black people tend to have stronger family ties than white people, not despite but because they live in a society that is actively trying to destroy them. Women pursue professional achievement because they live in a society that tells them the realm of business belongs to men. Gay people fight for marriage rights because they live in a society that devalues their relationships. This is why nihilism tends to manifest itself as a philosophical luxury. Not because it is luxurious, but because it and luxury share a natural habitat: the world without struggle.

But of course there is no such thing as “practical” nihilism, since you have to do something, so the teen contrarian makes the same move as the specialist: adopting conventional values, but dressing them up as iconoclasm. This is most obvious in the common case of Randianism (which, as Hamlet would say, really is common). It presents itself as a great individualist revelation, but in practice it pretty much just means letting capitalism do whatever it wants.

And it’s also the case for poor old Nietzsche, who, despite his best efforts, wound up as the preeminent representative of precisely this sort of banal contrarianism. When Nietzsche railed against “slave morality,” the morality of amelioration rather than achievement, he was talking about historical events that led to a particular mode of thought. He was not dumb enough to believe that the ruling class of his day was actually concerned with making everyone’s lives more comfortable.

But we can see why this misinterpretation is useful to the teen contrarian. If you believe that the problem is that society is “too accommodating,” it gives you something to oppose while doing exactly what the ruling class wants you to do: ignoring morality. It allows you to extract the sense of meaningfulness out of the concept of struggle without the inconvenience of actually challenging yourself. This is all especially sad when you consider that Nietzsche’s philosophy is basically an instruction manual on How to Be a Great Artist, but it winds up being used to support an utter dearth of creativity.

If you frequent some of the internet’s more desperate quarters, you may have encountered people claiming in all seriousness that nowadays white men are oppressed while everyone else has all the advantages. Same deal. Blaming women and minorities for stealing all your advantages seems iconoclastic now that society has accepted the validity of identity-based arguments. But the ancient pattern hasn’t changed: attacking the less advantaged instead of fighting to better yourself and your circumstances is still what society actually wants you to do, so you get to take a stroll down Easy Street while imagining that you’re running a gauntlet. As an added bonus, conceiving of yourself as oppressed in a philosophical sense without actually running into any practical obstacles allows you to maintain a permanent sense of self-serving victimization. If this isn’t the case, if you really are free, then all your failures are all your fault.

And that’s how 70-year-old philosophy explains the internet. The broader point is that theory matters. If you try to react to every dumb thing that happens individually, you’re going to be here all day. A good framework allows you to chart your own course.

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