Be Careful About What You Look For
Hello, good people! I hope you are doing well. Let’s get right the stuff!
ONE FROM THE AGES
Written in 1968, this one isn’t exactly from Ages, but it is older and it is about the wisdom of ages. Will and Ariel Durant on revolution, society, and the source of real progress:
"To break sharply with the past is to court the madness that may follow the shock of sudden blows or mutilations. As the sanity of the individual lies in the continuity of his memories, so the sanity of a group lies in the continuity of its traditions; in either case, a break in the chain invites a neurotic reaction, as in the Paris massacres of September 1792.
Since wealth is an order and procedure of production and exchange rather than an accumulation of (mostly perishable) goods, and is a trust (the credit system) in men and institutions rather than in the intrinsic value of paper money or checks, violent revolutions do not so much redistribute wealth as destroy it. There may be a re-division of the land, but the natural inequality of men soon re-creates an inequality of possessions and privileges, and raises to power a new minority with essentially the same instincts as in the old.
The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints."
Source: The Lessons of History
ONE FROM TODAY
Author, doctor, and former prison psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple on how our worldviews, explanations, and expectations shape our reality:
“The historiography that a person is taught and grows up with has, in my view, an underestimated effect on his psychology. The danger of too optimistic a historiography is that a person will become complacent, self-satisfied, and indifferent to the remediable sufferings around him; but too pessimistic a historiography will embitter him and stimulate the resentment that is never very far from the human heart (is there anyone who has never resented?). Of the two deformations, I prefer the former, which at least is likely to encourage a desire to contribute something constructive rather than destructive: but need we have a deformation at all?
Preferable to either deformation is a historiography that is capable of recognizing defects and even horrors in a tradition, but also strengths and glories, such that the tradition can survive without remaining obdurately stuck in its worst grooves. This requires a certain sophistication, that is to say, an ability to hold in the mind more than one thought at a time. It also requires the recognition that, man being a fallen creature, perfection is not of this world and cannot be demanded of the past, however, glorious aspects of it might be. Suffice it to say that the encouragement of such sophistication hardly seems to be the order of the day in our educational institutions.”
Source: Against History-as-Nightmare
ONE FROM US
I’ve spent much of the last couple of months in compliance meetings and online training modules. I now understand that it is best for adults to take water bottles from students and fill them up at the touchless automatic water fountain. You might assume the opposite (that fewer bottle exchanges are preferable), but that's because you haven't been trained.
Where reality makes us uncomfortable, we create legalese and protocol. We create the illusion of mass competency - the illusion of enlightenment, control, and safety - but often at the expense of honesty and common sense.
I’ve often referred to these misguided efforts for safety and fairness as utopian delusions. I can’t help but see them everywhere, stubbornly sabotaging what seem to be great ideas and noble causes.
Utopian delusions tend to suffer from some combination of the following:
They are good for us, but only if accomplished through human maturity,
They are not actually good for us because they deprive us of an essential stressor,
They are not possible because they ignore human nature (and therefore attempts to accomplish them deprive us of an essential stressor),
They might be possible, but accomplishing them requires us to cross the threshold where costs exceed the benefits (for example, what would society have to do to bring the annual number of kidnappings to zero?), or
They exaggerate a problem and, thus, provoke a disproportionate response (where costs exceed benefits).
We like to believe we can perfect the world. And while we should try to improve it, when these efforts aren’t accompanied by a humble awareness about the limits of human engineering then they almost always do more harm than good to the very people they intend to help.
The most damaging aspect of utopian delusions is that they do not take into account human psychology. As the 2018 “blue-dot study” shows, we humans will subconsciously change our definitions of everything, from what is blue to what is ethical, in order to confirm our expectations. As it says in the study:
“Levari et al. show experimentally that when the “signal” a person is searching for becomes rare, the person naturally responds by broadening his or her definition of the signal - and therefore continues to find it even when it is not there. From the low-level perception of color to higher-level judgments of ethics, there is a robust tendency for perceptual and judgmental standards to “creep” when they ought not to.”
If you are looking for examples of human decency, you will find them. But the opposite is also true. Every utopian delusion creates a witch hunt, whether for bullies, liability, or victimhood. They pursue purification - the elimination of evil - and in the process, they expand the definition of that evil so that it encompasses a range far beyond what is reasonable.
We need to be conscious of what we’re telling people to look for because they will find it whether it is there or not. Efforts to eliminate pain and unfairness, eliminate the need for ingenuity and overcoming. When victimhood and safety are trump cards, the majority of individuals will, consciously or subconsciously, learn to manipulate the concerns of well-meaning people. It is natural.
My three-year-old son, Ace, does this to any adult who lets him. When he doesn’t want to do something he says he has to pee. When he doesn’t want to eat something he says his stomach hurts. I’ll say put your shoes on and he’ll walk by Grandpa with the shoes that he puts on every day and begin grunting and grimacing as if it’s too hard. He likes seeing if he can get people to do things for him.
When you build your systems around accommodating every unique disadvantage, as is common in youth development, children learn to find whatever disadvantages they face. This breeds entitlement and learned helplessness. It pulls them to be less capable, less industrious, and less passionate. We certainly want to be helpful and receptive to people’s unique constraints, however, people are best off when the prevailing narratives of society encourage strength and adaptability.
A 2003 survey of Great Britain’s 69,000 self-made millionaires found that half came from unprivileged backgrounds and about 40% (four times the national average) were dyslexic. A naive reading might prompt parents to hope for dyslexia in much the same way that baseball-crazed fathers hope for left-handedness. But clearly, dyslexia doesn’t provide any direct advantages. The struggles of dyslexia prompt ingenuity and tenacity. Because human attitude and antifragility matter most, we find that in people with the right mindset, their disadvantages almost always elicit their greatest strengths.
Decorated former Navy SEAL, Jocko Willink, best articulates the mindset of the successful in his book, Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual:
“The people who are successful decide that they are going to be successful. They make that choice and they make other choices. They decide to study hard. They decide to work hard… They decide they are going to take on the hard jobs. Take on challenges. They decide they are going to lead when no one else will. They choose who they are going to hang around and they choose who they will emulate. They choose to become who they want to become—they aren’t inhibited by nature or nurture. They overcome both.”
This is not to deny the immense impact of environment. However, our students and society will be far better off when they hear and believe this statement.