“I don’t practice what I preach because I’m not the kind of person I’m preaching to.”
— J. R. “Bob” Dobbs
I read Atlas Shrugged probably about a decade ago, and felt turned off by its promotion of selfishness as a moral ideal. I thought that was basically just being a jerk. After all, if there’s one thing the world doesn’t need (I thought) it’s more selfishness.
Then I talked to a friend who told me Atlas Shrugged had changed his life. That he’d been raised in a really strict family that had told him that ever enjoying himself was selfish and made him a bad person, that he had to be working at every moment to make his family and other people happy or else let them shame him to pieces. And the revelation that it was sometimes okay to consider your own happiness gave him the strength to stand up to them and turn his life around, while still keeping the basic human instinct of helping others when he wanted to and he felt they deserved it (as, indeed, do Rand characters).
The religious and the irreligious alike enjoy making fun of Reddit’s r/atheism, which combines an extreme strawmanning of religious positions with childish insults and distasteful triumphalism. Recently the moderators themselves have become a bit embarrassed by it and instituted some rules intended to tone things down, leading to some of the most impressive Internet drama I have ever seen. In its midst, some people started talking about what the old strawmanning triumphalist r/atheism meant to them (see for example here).
A lot of them were raised in religious families where they would have been disowned if they had admitted to their atheism. Some of them were disowned for admitting to atheism, or lost boyfriends/girlfriends, or were terrified they might go to Hell. And then they found r/atheism, and saw people making fun of religion, and insulting it, in really REALLY offensive ways. And no one was striking them down with lightning. No one was shouting them down. No one was doing much of anything at all. And to see this taboo violated in the most shocking possible way with no repercussions sort of broke the spell for them, like as long as people were behaving respectfully to religion, even respectfully disagreeing, it still had this aura of invincibility about it, but if some perfectly normal person can post a a stupid comic where Jesus has gay sex with Mohammed, then there’s this whole other world out there where religion holds no power.
Gilbert tells the story of how when, as a young Christian struggling with doubt, he would read r/atheism to remind himself that atheists could be pretty awful. r/atheism is doing a bad job at being the sort of people who can convert Gilbert, and the new mods’ policy of “you should have more civil and intellectual discussions” might work better on him. I think it would work better on me too.
But there is – previously unappreciated by me – a large population of people for whom really dumb offensive strawmannish memes are exactly what they need.
A friend described his experiences in the Landmark Forum’s self-improvement workshop. He said their modus operandi was to get people to take responsibility for the outcome of their actions. His example was an office worker who always did substandard work, and was always making excuses like “My boss doesn’t s support me” or “My computer system isn’t good enough” or “My coworkers aren’t pulling their fair share.” Landmark says those kinds of excuses are what’s keeping you back. And they taught (again, according to this one person) that the solution was to treat everything that happens in your life as your responsibility – no excuses, just “it was my fault” or “it’s to my credit”.
Then a few days later, I was reading a book on therapy which contained the phrase (I copied it down to make sure I got it right) “Don’t be so hard on yourself. No one else is as hard on yourself as you are. You are your own worst critic.”
Notice that this encodes the exact opposite assumption. Landmark claims its members are biased against ever thinking ill of themselves, even when they deserve it. The therapy book claims that patients are biased towards always thinking ill of themselves, even when they don’t deserve it.
And you know, both claims are probably spot on. There are definitely people who are too hard on themselves. Ozy Frantz has done an amazing job of getting me and many other people inclined towards skepticism about feminist and transgender issues, engaging with us, and gradually convincing us to be more respectful and aware through sheer kindness and willingness to engage people reasonably on every part of the political spectrum. Two days ago some people on Twitter – who were angry Ozy said one need not boycott everything Orson Scott Card has ever written just because he’s against gay marriage – told Ozy they weren’t a real transgender person and suggested lots of people secretly disliked them. And instead of doing what I would do and telling the trolls to go to hell, Ozy freaked out and worried they was doing everything wrong and decided to delete everything they had ever written online. I know Ozy is their own worst critic and if that therapy book was aimed at people like them, it was entirely correct to say what it said.
On the other hand, I look at people like Amy’s Baking Company, who are obviously terrible people, who get a high-status professional chef as well as thousands of random joes informing them of exactly what they are doing wrong, who are so clearly in the wrong that it seems impossible not to realize it – and who then go on to attribute the negativity to a “conspiracy” against them and deny any wrongdoing. They could probably use some Landmark.
In a recent essay I complained about bravery debates, arguments where people boast about how brave they are to take an unorthodox and persecuted position, and their opponents counter that they’re not persecuted heretics, they’re a vast leviathan persecuting everyone else. But I think I underestimated an important reason why some debates have to be bravery debates.
Suppose there are two sides to an issue. Be more or less selfish. Post more or less offensive atheist memes. Be more or less willing to blame and criticize yourself.
There are some people who need to hear each side of the issue. Some people really need to hear the advice “It’s okay to be selfish sometimes!” Other people really need to hear the advice “You are being way too selfish and it’s not okay.”
It’s really hard to target advice at exactly the people who need it. You can’t go around giving everyone surveys to see how selfish they are, and give half of them Atlas Shrugged and half of them the collected works of Peter Singer. You can’t even write really complicated books on how to tell whether you need more or less selfishness in your life – they’re not going to be as buyable, as readable, or as memorable as Atlas Shrugged. To a first approximation, all you can do is saturate society with pro-selfishness or anti-selfishness messages, and realize you’ll be hurting a select few people while helping the majority.
But in this case, it makes a really big deal what the majority actually is.
Suppose an Objectivist argues “Our culture has become too self-sacrificing! Everyone is told their entire life that the only purpose of living is to work for other people. As a result, people are miserable and no one is allowed to enjoy themselves at all.” If they’re right, then helping spread Objectivism is probably a good idea – it will help these legions of poor insufficiently-selfish people, but there will be very few too-selfish-already people who will be screwed up by the advice.
But suppose Peter Singer argues “We live in a culture of selfishness! Everyone is always told to look out for number one, and the poor are completely neglected!” Well, then we want to give everyone the collected works of Peter Singer so we can solve this problem, and we don’t have to worry about accidentally traumatizing the poor self-sacrificing people more, because we’ve already agreed there aren’t very many of these at all.
It’s much easier to be charitable in political debates when you view the two participants as coming from two different cultures that err on opposite sides, each trying to propose advice that would help their own culture, each being tragically unaware that the other culture exists.
A lot of the time this happens when one person is from a dysfunctional community and suggesting very strong measures against some problem the community faces, and the other person is from a functional community and thinks the first person is being extreme, fanatical or persecutory.
This happens a lot among, once again, atheists. One guy is like “WE NEED TO DESTROY RELIGION IT CORRUPTS EVERYTHING IT TOUCHES ANYONE WHO MAKES ANY COMPROMISES WITH IT IS A TRAITOR KILL KILL KILL.” And the other guy is like “Hello? Religion may not be literally true, but it usually just makes people feel more comfortable and inspires them to do nice things and we don’t want to look like huge jerks here.” Usually the first guy was raised Jehovah’s Witness and the second guy was raised Moralistic Therapeutic Deist.
But I’ve also sometimes had this issue when I talk to feminists. They’re like “Guys need to be more concerned about women’s boundaries, and women need to be willing to shame and embarrass guys who hit on them inappropriately.” And maybe they spent high school hanging out with bros on the football team who thought asking women’s consent was a boring technicality, and I spent high school hanging out entirely with extremely considerate but very shy geeks who spent their teenage years in a state of nightmarish loneliness and depression because they were too scared to ask out women because the woman might try to shame and embarrass them for it.
And the big one is trust. There are so many people from extremely functional communities saying that people need to be more trusting and kind and take people at their word more often, and so many people from dysfunctional communities saying that’s not how it works. Both are no doubt backed by ample advice from their own lives.
A blog like this one probably should promote the opinions and advice most likely to be underrepresented in the blog-reading populace (which is totally different from the populace at large). But this might convince “thought leaders”, who then use it to inspire change in the populace at large, which will probably be in the wrong direction. I think most of my friends are too leftist but society as a whole is too rightist – should I spread leftist or rightist memes among my friends?
I feel pretty okay about both being sort of a libertarian and writing an essay arguing against libertarianism, because the world generally isn’t libertarian enough but the sorts of people who read long online political essays generally are way more libertarian than can possibly be healthy.