The Bickering of Fools

Do you know those angry arguments that people sometimes get into? The ones where they end up accusing each other of terrible things, threatening one another, mocking the other, lying in bed awake afterward boiling with impotent fury?

I witnessed one recently. Online, of course.

It was tough for me, because I think the natural instinct in such a situation is to want to try and pick sides, and in this case both sides were manifestly idiotic. Both of them were knowledgeable, well-educated idiots, who could throw around some big words and some important names from the history of philosophy, but no less idiotic for all that.

How frustrating is it to watch two people who are fundamentally ignorant as they are aggressively trading opinions.

Don’t do that. Don’t be that person. Don’t try to convince someone you’re right until you’ve studied the subject so well that you feel you could have an intelligent and respectable conversation on the matter with a subject matter expert who would not need to dumb things down for you or smirk quietly at all the signs of your incomprehension.

Studying is an immeasurably more beneficial way to spend time than bickering.

And once we’ve done some studying, we will probably no longer have any desire to lower ourselves to the level of those who want to bicker ignorantly about things. We can’t always avoid those people, of course, and sometimes it is emotionally a difficult thing to ignore the mockery of the ignorant. But at the very least I think we’ll find that we have little impetus from within ourselves to debate those who have no desire to make an effort to educate themselves, and that alone will be a great advantage to us in terms of our happiness and even of our intelligence.

Beating your bias

Scientific consensus and the best of the ideologues. Those two phrases represent the best ways that I’ve found so far to beat my own biases.

We all start out biased. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a starting point. It’s better than starting from nowhere and nothing.

But biases aren’t really an entirely good thing either. As biases, they are partial. They get at some piece of the truth, but they exclude things too. Not only do they neglect or ignore some things that we ought to accept, but they actively oppose us to those things, incline us to fight against what we should embrace. As long as that’s our position, we are warped, misshapen intellectual monstrosities.

Insofar as we can beat our own biases, we end up miles ahead of everyone else who hasn’t even managed to do that much yet. Trying to find a way to escape your biases is the most basic level of clear thinking. But even just doing that demands huge effort.

And I know there are some people who have no desire to escape their biases and are proud of it, and will scold anyone for having such an outdated desire in the first place. They will have no interest in what I wish to say, and I am happy to leave them, in turn, to their devices.

But if we want to start to extricate ourselves from bias, there are two things I’ve found to be most helpful. Firstly, a respect for expert consensus. It’s not necessarily a good idea to accept at face value everything said by a person with letters after their name, though if that’s all a person has access to it’s better than nothing. But much better is to see what consensus exists in a field, and commit beforehand to accepting it as the best that can be said at this point (at least from the perspective of that one field; often different fields will contribute different perspectives on a single question, which need to be integrated together as much as possible). We as non-experts aren’t in a position to judge between experts who disagree with one another, but the consensus within a field shows how the people who are experts pass judgement on such disputes. Expert consensus can certainly be wrong, but it is the best we have in any given moment. By following the consensus rather than hand selecting the experts we want to believe, we eliminate a lot of the contamination our biases can introduce.

And beyond that, it is good to try to find the best representatives of an opposing view and learn as much truth from them as it is possible to find. It’s a way to trick our minds into opening up beyond the point they are usually capable of. This doesn’t necessarily take us out of our biases, but it certainly begins to broaden our views in a powerful way. Find the best libertarians and see what intelligent things they have to say. Find the best socialists, conservatives, progressives, reactionaries, pacifists, militarists, atheists, theists. It is amazing how much there is in apparently opposite viewpoints that can be extracted and drawn together.

BJJ shapes and aims

I’m very much a beginner in BJJ. I spend a fair bit of time thinking about it, though.

I’ve heard, and my experience corroborates it, that learning BJJ as it’s often taught, as a sequence of moves, is not the best. That sequence you learned and practiced against an in resisting opponent, will not translate into actual sparring. Basically never.

What actually happens, I think, at least for me, is that you learn to recognize particular goals to seek in a particular situation, and a variety of . . . shapes, let’s say, that can be helpful for accomplishing a given goal.

If I’m in closed guard, I want to get the guard open and pass the legs. That’s the goal. Not the only possible one, but still a fairly common one, worth pursuing. I know I can do that while kneeling by angling myself and pushing down and then sort of swimming forward. I can do it standing if while hand fighting I stand up with one leg forward and one back, and push down on the legs and then sort of dive toward the torso while trying to keep limbs from getting in my way.

I could also try to tire out the other person (or rest up myself) by cupping my hands against the inside of their elbows, pushing my head onto their chest, and driving forward. Different goal, different shape, but still a goal and a shape.

Obviously, those are not very technical explanations of what to do, but that’s the whole point. Certainly for myself, once I start rolling against a resisting opponent, that’s as much as I can remember from a technique, when I can remember anything. You learn pretty quickly that when you try to think of a technique as a sequence of steps while rolling (“and then I put my knee here, and then I post my hand here, and then I catch an underhook, and then I step around to the side, and then”) it doesn’t work out so well.

And to be charitable, I’m pretty sure the teachers know that the sequences they teach won’t be remembered and wouldn’t be very useful, and that (even if they wouldn’t put it in these words) what is taken away from the lesson is goals and shapes, and that that is the only useful thing that could be taken away. In this day and age, though, I wonder if those useful things, or at least many of them, could be as easily learned on YouTube for free and then brought to an open mat to practice.

High art has its place

I was giving some more thought to my recent post about my preference for popular, mass entertainment over what might be called high art.

On the one hand, I shouldn’t overstate it. I do enjoy some good pop songs, or blockbuster movies, but I’m really not able to devote that much time to them. I’ve always had a sense that there are more important things to spend time on, and have made an effort to spend time on those other, more beneficial pursuits. I consider that a piece of good fortune I’ve had, consequent on the sorts of people who have helped shape what I care about over the years.

The one genre of relatively low art that I really do keep coming back to somewhat compulsively is page-turners, fiction that emphasizes plot. Still, even there I have some standards, and I hope that I gravitate generally toward some of the better examples of that art form.

But I wanted to clarify, too, that I’m not against high art. I’m just against pretending to like it because it makes you feel good about yourself.

I think that a great way to enjoy a great piece of art would be slowly, repeatedly, and with lots of instruction and research.

I don’t want to show up at the opera, hate my life for three hours, and then walk away thinking about how much better I am than the people who spent the evening watching Netflix. That’s just as much a waste of time as watching Netflix. In fact it’s worse, because at least watching Netflix doesn’t make anyone insufferably pompous.

When I am ready to spend time enjoying great art, I want to do it properly. And I think that’s why I haven’t really gotten around to it yet – because it will be an investment of time and energy, and for now I am focused on committing those scarce resources to activities that seem to me even more pressing, like getting a solid foundation in my understanding of philosophy and history, and some basics of things like economics and political theory. It feels like it will be a long time before I’ve worked my way down the list to the point where I can devote myself to reading Dostoevsky and watching theatrical productions of Renaissance playwrights.

Health isn’t for old people

Being in your mid thirties is a weird place. People in their twenties and below see you as geriatric. People in their forties and above look at you and see an infant.

But I’m not as young as I used to be. I can remember being young. I can distinctly remember thinking, as a young person, that ill health is pretty much an affliction of the aged, and that in my youth I could spend my youthful vitality however I liked and worry about healthy living later.

That decision was a mixed blessing. It did lead to some health problems (none as serious as I deserved, thankfully), which in turn got me interested in health in a way I never have been before and probably never would have been otherwise. Getting my priorities straight in my thirties isn’t ideal, but it’s better than waiting until my fifties to do it.

What I never really thought through was how almost everything I could want was dependent on my health, and insofar as I could easily have been healthier, I could have had more of the things I wanted.

What’s probably most dear to me now, which also would have been somewhat convincing when I was younger, is my mind. My thoughts are better when my health is better. Intelligence and memory are improved by good health. Mood and mental health and energy are improved. Relationships are improved. Character and moral quality is improved. The more the brain deteriorates or is working inefficiently, the harder all these things become.

Of course, there’s also the more physical aspect. Better health translates to better stamina, greater strength, less pain, less self-consciousness. What person, of any age, wouldn’t want that?

The problem seemed, when I was younger, that I would have to give up pleasures and live like an ascetic to have these benefits, and I couldn’t do it. But what I didn’t know then, what I wish I would have known, is that I was wrong. I have nothing against asceticism, but it’s not identical with healthy living. There are so many amazing foods and activities that are intensely pleasant that are also entirely healthy. The trick is just knowing which those are. Once that’s known, the choice could hardly be clearer.

Popular art and snobbery

When I meet people with whom I feel a strong intellectual kinship (which seems to be less and less common these days; man, Covid really threw a wrench into a our social fabric, to mix a metaphor), I find that they are frequently people who like high-brow art. For myself, to be honest, I’ve never understood that.

It’s not surprising that people who have a taste for philosophy, for history, for the classics and the medievals, who have an interest in education and moral formation and religious experience, would also be the sort of people who like opera and classical music and old or especially artsy fiction and films, and things of that sort.

I think there’s a place for classical music or even opera, but to be honest, in my personal view that place is as background music. The last time I went to a symphony performance (which I haven’t done often in my adult life), I brought along a book to read.

I listen to pop music. I watch blockbusters. I read pageturners. I know it’s not cool, but it’s the truth.

The professor who was most influential on me, and for whom I have a great and enduring fondness, would certainly cast me into outer darkness for speaking such folly. He made eloquent and convincing appeals for the need to consume art that elevates the soul and improves the character, rather than what merely caters to the lower passions.

And I don’t disagree with that, in principle, even though in practice I contradict it almost every day (most often in the form of easily consumed fictional audiobooks). I agree that ideally, that should be the place of art.

I think why I’ve always resisted that sort of high-brow approach to art is because I’ve seen all too often how it can be corrupted, and I’ve never wanted to expose myself to the temptation to become the sort of person who is corrupted by what ought to improve us. For many of the people I’ve known, consuming high-brow art has been a posture, a justification for arrogance. They don’t really understand it. They don’t actually even like it! But they endure it because of the greater pleasure they get from feeling better than the dirty plebs who consume the popular arts, and from bonding with fellow connoisseurs who join them in complaining gleefully about the degradation of taste in society.

In my view, baseless and willful arrogance of that sort is one of the most distasteful, and the most degrading, and the most repellant of human vices. That’s why I tend to take as my guide to art the preferences of the many. The corruptions I expose myself to from that sort of art seem far less dangerous, in my experience, than the corruption I risk from the alternative.

Voting against one’s interest

People on the right and on the left like to complain, in different ways, about how folks often vote against their own interests.

I probably hear it more often from a leftist standpoint. They see conservatism as the ideology of helping out the wealthy. But lots of people who aren’t at all wealthy vote for it, and argue for it with great fervour.

The right makes the same sort of point. There are lots of people who vote for progressive parties who are white and/or male and/or cis and/or Christian etc. “Don’t they know they’re voting for people who forthrightly hate them? Don’t they know they’re supporting people who want to make the world worse for their children?”

Every time I hear this sort of thing, it aggravates me.

I get that you disagree with the other side. I get that anyone who agrees with the other side is automatically assumed to be unvirtuous or unintelligent or both.

But someone might actually vote for something that is against their own interest without being unintelligent or unvirtuous. In fact, it could very easily show admirable traits and keen insight.

The people who get lumped in with the oppressors, who feel pain for the injustice visible in the world and vote for a progressive party even knowing it might leave them worse off – they are voting against their own interests, and they deserve respect. The people who vote for the party that they truly believe will do best for the economic and military and moral wellbeing of the country, even with the knowledge that they and their loved ones may well end up worse off as a result – they are voting against their interests too. And I think they deserve respect for it as well.

Where does liberalism fit?

It just occurred to me that there are three general pictures of liberal democracy that get assumed, and each feels fairly plausible to me, even though it doesn’t seem like they can all be right.

Liberalism’s defender (somewhere around the centre-right of the ideological spectrum) will claim that liberalism is the best form of politics so far discovered (if perhaps not without some flaws). Liberalism means political power broadly distributed and moderated by checks and balances, it means rights for everyone, always respected, and it means economic growth and technological progress. So long as we don’t stray from this path, things will just keep getting better. Any other option is just regressive.

The anti-liberal leftist sees liberalism as embryonic fascism. Liberalism is oppression and deception and greed and violence and bigotry. Stay on this path and it will surely lead us back to the 1930s.

And for the anti-liberal rightwinger (and some optimistic leftists), liberalism is nascent communism. Liberalism reduces everything to dollar signs, suppresses greatness, traps everyone in a stupor of entertainments, makes ugliness out of beauty, and encourages identity politics in an endless and futile quest for perfect equality. Stay on this path and you’d better prepare for full-blown Maoism.

I’ve never noticed this before. It’s astonishing to me that such wildly incompatible interpretations could exist for a phenomenon that is, in a way, so familiar to all of us.

Liberalism’s self understanding is at once most attractive to me and also most unconvincing. Reckless economic and technological evolution is inherently dynamic, unstable, unpredictable, uncontrollable. It does seem to me that liberalism as we know it is by nature a transitional reality, not a final destination.

But then, where does it lead? I can see either of the other stories proving to be true. Neither seems assured. Maybe there’s an element of choice involved.