Follow the path of greatest resistance

In a recent exploration of what it means to “strike the root” I pointed out that my battle lines are between individuals and institutions rather than the more “libertarian” framing of its struggle as the battle between the private and public sectors. My beef is not with narrowly-defined “aggression,” but with something more broadly-defined, and I’m not sure just what to call it. “Assertiveness” might be a little too broad (but only a little). My best single-word answer so far is “ascendancy.” I think much of the hobgoblinry over internal consistency, and also over narrow definitions, while useful as a tool for ferreting out illogic, can also be a tool for constructing rhetorical traps, or constructing a framework which substantially defends the status quo. I freely admit that I believe the difference between persuasion and force is more one of degree than one of kind. Maybe my sliding-scale understanding of freedom is a slippery slope, but it seems plainly obvious to me that under assumption of formal rather than substantive equality, some people are not only more equal than others, but more free than others. My own hedge against bullshit relies less on rigid definitions and more on the assumption that de facto matters matter, while de jure ones (mere formalities) do not. Equality to me is not some formalism such as equality of opportunity or equality under the law. It’s, among other things, ethological equality. It is treating others as your equal, which means behaving like a parrot and not like a primate, even when you are a primate. It means putting the most into holding your head high precisely when it is most discouraged. And perhaps hanging your head low when holding it high is least discouraged. At its best, of course, it means refusing such contests altogether, but one must confront the world as it is. Being a primate, behaving like a parrot takes real effort. This is also why I regard anarchism not as narrowly-defined anti-statism (a highly anti-egalitarian and reactionary view, in my view) or even diffuse anti-authoritarianism (although that impulse at least is authentic), but at its core, the rejection of human-nature essentialism. Between the classic conservative position that human nature is essentially vicious and the classic liberal position that we’re essentially selfish, of course liberalism is the lesser of two evils, but Evil itself is problematic. The quest for value-free science, while it was laudable in an earlier time when the main enemy to freedom was the Church, has become a source of pat excuses for social darwinism. Time to throw it out with the bathwater. That’s all for now.

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13 Responses to Follow the path of greatest resistance

  1. Poor Richard says:

    Don’t be thinking its easy to get a parrot to treat a human as an equal…

  2. Jeremy says:

    I love this post so much.

    I also suspect that persuasion lies somewhere on the spectrum between “total avoidance” and “total domination” just as violence, fraud, etc. do. And I love the rejection of “human nature essentialism” — the whole point of being human, in my mind, is that WE get to decide what our nature is because WE get to decide what right and wrong are in the first place. I think this whole idea of civilization is the mutual adoption of arbitrary abstractions as a means for tying ourselves to one another in more and more meaningful ways, in many sense the creation of a collective hallucination or dream. My goal is not to destroy the dream, but to make it more lucid, participatory, since it depends on everybody’s consent on some level.

    • n8chz says:

      Maybe getting persuaded doesn’t mean getting pushed around so much, but maybe again we could dial down “persuasion” to something like “influence” most of the time and save “persuasion” for emergency situations or something. I think things tend to be more often than not more sliding-scale than binary. For that reason I invented the non-zero tolerance policy. That was a long time ago, and during one of my less articulate periods. I should probably adopt it as a current blog topic and refine it a little.

      • Jeremy says:

        To influence without persuading is what the best do, anyway. Then one has no feeling of being cognitively bullied into a new position — instead, one has thought it over and is now comfortable adopting a new position. It empowers one to make their own decision, or at least gives that perception.

        It reminds me of the aphorism that you can’t give help; all you can do is offer it and it is either accepted or not. In a similar sense, by releasing ourselves from caring about a person’s acceptance or rejection of our argument, we probably become more persuasive overall, because we get rid of the self-interest that persuasion always seems to entail.

  3. Jeremy says:

    And to hell with consistency — at least when it is used as a way to parry a challenge to your accepted beliefs! Every worthwhile idea takes at least a few moments to sink in, and all certainty does is put static on the complaint line.

  4. Marja Erwin says:

    If we’re talking about human nature, we might want to consider our closest relatives: chimpanzees and bonobos. Chimpanzee communities tend to be more hierarchical and far more violent than bonobo communities. If we can understand why this is so, we might be able to apply the lessons to our own communities. One recurring suggestion is that one of the causes might be endocrinological; male bonobos have much lower testosterone levels than male chimpanzees, while female bonobos have slightly higher testosterone levels than female bonobos. I haven’t been able to find info on their other hormones or how their levels compare with human levels. Anyway, if there were less testosterone in the community, for example if male hormone balances shifted closer to female hormone balances, fewer people might initiate dominance behavior, and fewer might need to adopt dominance behavior as a social survival strategy.

    • n8chz says:

      Really? That’s counterintuitive. I guess I was thinking about testosterone’s alleged effects on sex drive (or is sex frequency something else?) and not so much ascendancy.

      • Lindsay says:

        Testosterone does lots of things. It seems to be a driver of dominance-seeking behavior as well as sex-seeking behavior.

  5. valeriekeefe says:

    I like the post, though I think you have mischaracterized at least one classical conservative’s position. I believe a society without restraint on those who would arrogate power, especially economic or social power, since those are often the least transparent, unto themselves, will be ruled by the most vicious… and the most selfish. But I, and I think many other classical conservatives, don’t think that a dynamic like that is natural, because we’re conscious beings. We can formulate ethics. We can engage in mutually beneficial arrangements. We needn’t live lives that are nasty, brutish, or short, to quote Hobbes, and the whole of human societal progress has been the implementation of a series of constraints on viciousness and its effects.

    One can be a classical conservative (as opposed to a Manchester liberal with a blue ribbon) and distrust factions of the elite that have forgotten their responsibilities, as opposed to using conservatism as a pretext to deny the general public their inherent rights of self-government.

  6. Prodigeek says:

    Love this post. I hope I will have time to read more of them. I’ll make the suggestion that some paragraph breaks would really help it feel a bit less intimidating. I’m more than open to critique of my own.

    I do have some thoughts here. I also have strong feeling towards this archaic notion of human-nature essentialism. I think of it in terms of having roots in classic religious authoritarian styled so-called “morality”. Think along the lines of “the fallen nature of man”. It certainly does belong in a puddle of bathwater somewhere.

    As an aside, one might note how this kind of essentialism is, by design, always about the “other” rather than the “self” when in public discourse. Any outward mention of personal fallibility is typically lip service. The only genuinely inward criticism is in the fearful, “self-talk” torment of managing one’s perpetually frail ego and appearances, these torments being natural byproducts of this kind of “morality”. I think of it more like network of social behaviours and reactions, than the actual system of ethical ideology that it pretends to be.

    Like “god”, they insist that our depravity is inescapable, yet demand that YOU overcome it. Mostly likely without help, and most CERTAINLY without THEIR help. They will argue that anyone can do anything if they just try hard enough. However, this stance to which they conveniently flip-flop is just as untrue. I see this too as intrinsically part of that morality paradigm.

    As in so many ways, we desire to see ourselves as above and apart from nature, which is our undoing. The fact is that if you take a very large group of people from various demographics (ALL BEING CONTROLLED FOR), and put them in a particular ethical situation, with a particular set of social and logistical conditions, and 60% of people are found to cheat: then THAT is our collection nature for those conditions! In that situation, with these conditions, this many people will behave this way. It’s meaningless to argue that 100% of people “could” do the “right” thing, that those people were “free” to choose.

    If reiterating the the rules doesn’t work, if punishment doesn’t work, if isolation doesn’t work, THEN THEY DON’T WORK! They fail as causal influences, and you need to try something else! In the broadest understanding of things, they have not failed the system, the system has failed to understand their nature. In statistics this is called sampling error. You’re externalizing unwanted data to uphold your pet theory. You fail!

    So no, I don’t think we have a fixed “evil” nature, but we do have natures. We can be politically free, or free from particular coercion, but we are not entirely causally free, not entirely free from certain human bounds. We have malleability withing these bounds, but there are bounds. The semantics get very stick here, because having another person tell us that we are to make choices (either in the present moment or implanted in our youth) can itself act as a causal influence that modifies our nature.

    This is pretty rambley and rushed, but I hope it made sense. 😉

  7. Prodigeek says:

    “The quest for value-free science, while it was laudable in an earlier time when the main enemy to freedom was the Church, has become a source of pat excuses for social darwinism.”

    Brilliance! xD

  8. Poor Richard says:

    “…my battle lines are between individuals and institutions rather than the more “libertarian” framing of its struggle as the battle between the private and public sectors.”

    Is it that complicated? MY battle line is between people or institutions acting in good faith (bona fides) and those acting in bad faith (mala fides). Bad faith comes in many guises but usually involves unjustified (unjust, disproportionate) dishonesty or force. IMO its all about behavior and not about forms, structures, sectors, etc. It isn’t even about ideologies. Its about case-by-case behavior.

    As you said, “My own hedge against bullshit [mala fides] relies less on rigid definitions and more on the assumption that de facto matters matter, while de jure ones (mere formalities) do not.”

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