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Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Equality and Justice and why the difference matters

| 42 Comments

I just saw the following on Facebook.  Take a moment to think about it.

 

funny-equality-justice-baseball-fence

Does it seem reasonable?  Think again.  You see, to me, equality is not about who is standing on which box.  It is about tearing down the god damned fence.

The name of the political party of which I am a sympathizer is the Socialist Equality Party, and the word “equality” was not pulled out of a hat. It is a hallowed term, reminding us always of our goal.  In this context equality means something fairly straightforward: an end to social privilege. This refers to economic privilege above all, and then the reflections of economics in politics, law, and culture. The United States provides a good example of the historical movement: a deeply unequal country that was founded on the principle of equality.  The continual resolution and re-assertion of this contradiction has led to (roughly in order): propertied male suffrage, white male suffrage, the ending of slavery, male suffrage, human suffrage, and the end of Jim Crow segregation.

There is a great deal more to do, and in my opinion (you, of course, are welcome to disagree), we’ve reached a place in the exhaustion of capitalism such that there is no way forward without the mass, combined strength of the working class fighting under a socialist program. And it is at this point that these sections of the pseudo-left come out, in so many words, against equality.

What does it mean? What do they mean by “justice?”  Look at the picture.  They do not mean the ending of privilege, they mean the shifting of privilege. To use John Scalzi’s famous and excellent analogy, they want to alter the difficulty settings on the game, not replace the game with an entirely new one. They are saying, in other words, “I want a taller box to stand on,” not, “tear down the fence.” And the theoreticians behind this movement—already privileged sections of  the upper middle class—want a taller box for themselves alone.  They believe the fence will always be there.  And in many cases they want it there; it keeps the rabble out.

Behind those three figures are masses of people struggling to survive. The figures on the fence aren’t even thinking about those who are behind them, but they matter. They are the millions, and they are the ones who create everything—including those boxes the figures are standing on. Think about that for a minute.

The task of the day—hell, of the hour—is equality: a direct attack on any and all social privilege, and I am happy to talk to anyone who agrees with that, even if we disagree about the best way to go about it. I have nothing but contempt for those who wish to elevate themselves at the expense of the poor, the oppressed, the exploited.  And that is exactly the agenda of those who reject the fight for equality.

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

42 Comments

  1. I’ll tell anyone who asks that I’m against equality; usually this elicits gasps, assuming people have been listening. I then go on to mention that I’m a big fan of PARITY, and I’m careful to distinguish it from Parody. Men and women will NEVER be equal. Black and white will NEVER be equal. But we will, hopefully, enjoy Parity at some point as equally *valuable* but otherwise different people.

  2. The problem I see with this metaphor is that, depending on the *exact* definition of what the fence is, how I view this argument changes wildly. If the fence is structurally imposed disadvantages, inequalities, and oppressions – then I want the fence torn down, and equality provided.

    If the fence includes unconscious and instinctive attitudes and prejudices, or situational disadvantages that cannot be easily corrected by human agency (mental illness, physical disability, dealing with the informal attitudes of individuals rather than formal, systematic problems) then the fence can have holes punched in it, but it can’t be done away with, and I want some more boxes for the folks who need it.

    The problem with such apparently elegant metaphors as this one, even with its visual aid, is the fight between people of good will can become too easily muddled, and it’s hard to know if both sides of an argument are fighting about the same thing. What *is* an elephant like, anyway?

  3. Steve, as usual you may excellent point(s) and express your message so well. I should add that not only is the struggle for equality (i.e, the socialist revolution) urgent but as we are constantly reminded by the World Socialist Website that with world capitalism in crises, the unresolved crisis of the 20th and 21st centuries faces us with the most dire danger of another and possible terminal world war as the ruling elites –with the US in the forefront– are driven toward this disaster for the same reasons they cling to their privileges come what may.
    Dannyfree

  4. I was 100% with you up to Scalzi’s analogy. As the examples of Hindu, Jewish, and Asian Americans show, the “easy” setting is not ethnically Christian white—all three groups are richer, and while I’m on the side that says Jews are white “because history”, a lot of privilege theorists insist they’re not, so by their argument, that’s three easier settings than “white”. My favorite comment from when I skimmed the comments on Scalzi’s post was Michael Kirkland’s “I’m thankful for all the advantages I have over Herman Cain’s daughter. I really dodged a bullet there.”

    That quibble aside, damn well said!

  5. Jon Carey, so long as capitalism survives, you’re right that the best we can hope for is parity. I’ve lately been quoting something I asked an anti-racist a few years back, in the hope someone could answer, and so far, all I get are wifty expressions of optimism that exclude the statistics on class mobility in the US: “For years, I wrestled with whether Malcolm X was right when he said you can’t have capitalism without racism. Clearly, liberals and conservatives are working desperately to create capitalism without racism. But I’ve finally come to see that Malcolm X was right: if you don’t redistribute wealth, the distribution of wealth will be racially disproportionate. If you do redistribute wealth, capitalism ends. It’s a Catch-22 that anti-racists ignore. Do you have an answer?”

  6. skzb

    Jon: I think equality is a perfectly reasonable goal as I specified in the OP: economic equality, and equality in politics, law, and culture. The first expression of “equality” in this country, was extremely limited and it has been expanding ever since. I propose to expand it more.

    Matt: I think you’re exactly right; this metaphor twists and turns pretty easily, and to some degree can be made to mean almost anything. That said, I think my interpretation is likely to be pretty close to what the artist meant–in effect, if not intention. And, in any case, I hope I was clear enough on my own meaning that the positive aspect (ie, what I’m for) came through clearly.

    Thanks Danny, and you raise a valuable point.

  7. Parity. Hmmm. If it derives from “on a par with” then it means equality. We’re talking about equal rights here, not everyone having their hair chopped off at the same length. Living as I have in the world of disabilities, I could provide a hundred examples how equality still needs expanding, aside from black/white issues or male/female issues.
    So I’m with Steven (surprise, surprise!): break down the fence and, if it’s needed for safety, build a better fence. If it’s needed because of the rules, or the excitement, develop a better game.

  8. I photoshopped that graphic. Since I don’t know how to post pics here, it’s at my blog: http://shetterly.blogspot.com/2015/08/equality-doesnt-mean-justice-fixed.html

  9. skzb

    Will: I like it! Of course, it introduces all sorts of new metaphorical tangles of the kind Matt pointed out above. But still.

  10. @will – Most ball fields have grass outside the infield….

    Also, for safety’s say, I would say the answer to THIS PARTICULAR ISSUE would be to remove the wooden fence and put up a nice chain link fence. Don’t want the balls smacking people.

  11. @Will – the answer to your question, as far as I can tell, is that if you re-distribute wealth, then capitalism resets. And it’s not “capitalism”; it’s the progression of human society that just happens to be called capitalism at the moment. It is human nature to (as much as possible, but still incrementally) increase one’s own security; and eventually one of the steps in that process is to increase one’s own wealth, which is to say, to increase your ability to increase your security. And the further along in the process you are; the greater those “incremental” steps become, relative to the steps of others in the same process, until each step you take is in and of itself a monument to excess. This is at the heart of the social cycle, where revolutions are just step x in an endless repeating process, where x = the point where a critical mass is reached wherein the incremental “steps” of a population come together enough to outdistance even the plutarch’s ability to further his own security (nb. in the plutarch’s case, furthering his own security is maintaining his security due to diminishing returns/endlessly increasing threat of loss. I mean, if only one person/group has everything, then statistically it becomes increasingly likely that the only means by which one can increase his own security is to “attack” in some way the person that has everything.) In this way, revolution is quite literally inevitable; and re-distributing the wealth just sets the stage for the next inevitability.

    How to break this cycle is a different discussion; and I freely admit to having little to no clue, unless it involves the chemical modification of our genes/neurophysiology/sociopsychology away from fear and self-centrism, which drives the “security” engine that currently motivates, I think, nearly 100% of all human behaviour.

    @Steve – I am in agreement with your pursuit of the expansion of the concept of equality to eventually become defined in the context of plurality and not uniformity.

    @Cynthia – I used male/female & black/white as a means of expressing all dualisms, the “X vs. Not X” dichotomy that resides at the heart of all moral value judgements. The problem with the language is that it fails to capture the individual definition of terms: to me, parity is defined as what I said @Steve above, with the _added_ context that the scope of the plurality encompasses so much as to become not only devoid of meaning but also flatly contradictory to the concept of “equal” at its base. I’m for tearing down the fence AND the ballpark. I quite literally believe (within a certain, individualized context of course) in the literal truth of “every man is your brother.” In a world where each shares in one fraternity (and please forgive the male-centric terminology) distinguishing factors become meaningless in interaction except where it leads to an appreciation of the difference. Which is not a worship of the different-ness of the other; which lends itself too readily to absorption and extinction; but in the concept of dualistic otherness–ie, You’re different than me, and I’m different than you–we can grow together; but never the twain shall meet. In short, I’m for a recognition of the over-arching same-ness of every person, but in a way that doesn’t lead to conformity and the “cannon-fodder” mentality that subsumes the individual in favour of the society that you see in, for example, Chinese society. I see little point in building a society of robots.

  12. Mechaninja, who says I don’t listen to my critics? I was using the brown because that was in the original art, but I switched it to green, and it’s much prettier now. Thank you! (I hear you on the chain link, but cartooning calls for simple images, so let’s just assume the kids have been told that if they stand there, they’d better watch the ball.)

  13. Sadly, Will, you can tell them to watch the ball, and they’ll still get whacked, and they’ll still blame whoever took down the fence.

  14. Charlie, hey, they’ll have universal health care, so it’s all good! 🙂

  15. Not intending to be invidious —

    I’d sort of want to describe the three panels as Basic Income, Socialism, and Freedom.

    If you help out everybody the same, that’s kind of fair and some people get what they need.
    If you try to give everybody what they need, that’s better.
    If it turns out that when you remove artificial barriers then they don’t need help, that’s better still.

    In terms of political philosophy I can’t say that third approach is a cure-all. Sometimes people really do need help. And given their freedom some people will try to create artificial barriers faster than you can tear them down. But it’s at least one valuable tool in the toolbox.

  16. It just continues to be a flawed metaphor. To be fair to the Basic Income people, each person would get a box, and the box would be big enough that the smallest person could peek over the top of the wall. The disagreements in the BI community are all about how big the box should be—should you be able to peek over the wall, or get your head completely above it?

  17. no one replied to my Epic Post(tm) 🙁

  18. Jon, I think I did, then had internet failure. In any case, here’s the quick reply:

    You say, “It is human nature to (as much as possible, but still incrementally) increase one’s own security; and eventually one of the steps in that process is to increase one’s own wealth.” Yes to the first part—security is one of the points of socialism. No to the second, as we can see by looking at cultures where wealth is shared. The second is only one way to deal with desperation. We know, for example, that the flaw in Malthusianism is it assumes people breed wildly. But when people feel they do not need children for sources of income, they have fewer children. We adapt our idea of security to the circumstances.

  19. I would argue that shared wealth provides the sense of (false) security that individual wealth does; at which point my argument still stands.

  20. Jon, that’s probably why people aren’t bothering to answer you. At a certain point, either you believe most people want to look out for each other or you don’t. I think it’s what separates right and left libertarians. I will always choose shared wealth over individual wealth.

    I don’t mean to suggest right libertarians are bad people. I think they’re frightened people with bad politics.

  21. Sorry, just to clarify my earlier statement: “…shared wealth provides the SAME sense of (false) security that individual wealth does…”

    I believe that most people want to “x” — whether that’s looking out for each other or other similar positive, normal generalizations; but the problem rest want to “not x”. And that remainder is why we can’t have nice things.

  22. One point of socialism is to set up a system that remainder cannot exploit. Or at least, cannot exploit as effectively.

  23. “At a certain point, either you believe most people want to look out for each other or you don’t.”

    I believe that most people want to look out for their tribe, but not for the outsiders who appear to threaten their tribe. It takes a rare person to truly decide that all of humanity is his tribe, even when they disagree and don’t accept *him* into *their* tribes.

    Like, it takes a special sort of socialist to welcome capitalist oppressors into his tribe.

  24. There is no system that we can devise that another of us cannot exploit; the sheer amount of time that we will dedicate to finding a loophole or some other type of flaw in the system in which we find ourselves will inevitably far exceed the amount of time and consideration that went into planning the system. Therefore, socialism that focuses on that is ultimately futile. Any system of government for whatever societal scope MUST have dynamism built into it, or it is doomed to fail. That is why, I believe, communism failed so quickly; it is founded upon idealism—or rather, on a conceptualization of idealism that inherently assumes (incorrectly) that perfection is static state. So fell many other forms of government as well. Not many people wake up in the morning and say to themselves, whatever their agenda “I’m going to be the most terrible person I can think of today”. No, people need to be liked, so they design systems that they find fair and good. Whether or not someone else finds that same system to be just as fair/good is another story. But capitalism hasn’t COMPLETELY failed because it, if not assumes, then certainly allows for gritty realism-greed and avarice and all that good stuff. As a result since it’s the one that’s most successful, or perhaps more accurately, the least unsuccessful, it’s beat all challengers. And it’s gotten to the point where, like any prize-fighter who has an unbeaten streak, it begins to believe that since it hasn’t been beaten yet, then therefore it is unbeatable. And therein lies the seeds of excess and corruption that we see in Capitalism today.

  25. “it takes a special sort of socialist to welcome capitalist oppressors into his tribe.”

    Not really. Most socialists want to treat former capitalists just as they would treat anyone else.

    “There is no system that we can devise that another of us cannot exploit”

    Some systems are easier to exploit than others. Capitalism is built on the assumption that exploitation is natural.

    What anyone maintains is “natural” for people only tells you what they think is natural for them. Liars assumes everyone lies, capitalists assume everyone exploits, thieves assume everyone steals, and most of us know that liars, exploiters, and thieves are in the minority. Therefore, we need a system that controls them rather than one they control.

    As for what system is most successful, feudalists made the same argument that feudalism had proven itself to be the best system for many centuries. And yet its time passed.

  26. Pingback: Steven Brust: Equality and Justice and Why the Difference Matters | In My Mind, This Is All Connected

  27. “it takes a special sort of socialist to welcome capitalist oppressors into his tribe.”

    ‘Not really. Most socialists want to treat former capitalists just as they would treat anyone else.’

    Good! Maybe the problem for Russia and China was that there weren’t that many socialists, and after they won a whole lot of people were just pretending. So it was a great big minus socially and economically not to have proletarian parents.

    ‘Some systems are easier to exploit than others. Capitalism is built on the assumption that exploitation is natural.’

    Yes. They got some power by trying to harness the forces of exploitation. There have been big problems but I think it’s often worked better than feudalism.

    ‘Therefore, we need a system that controls them rather than one they control.’

    Sure! Get whatever benefits are available from them, without letting them run wild.

    In a wildly oversimplified way, I could say that feudalism was what we got when we let military people and priests run wild, and after that we tried letting merchants run wild.

    Maybe it’s time to give scientists a turn.

  28. skzb

    “Maybe the problem for Russia and China was that there weren’t that many socialists…” In a way, this is true for Russia. One of the most important effects of the wars of intervention (1918-1922) was that it was most class-conscious, politically sophisticated, knowledgeable workers who put themselves in the front lines, and were the most self-sacrificing. One of the major factors that permitted Stalin’s rise to power was the liquidation in these wars of this whole layer of the culturally advanced working class.

  29. “Maybe it’s time to give scientists a turn”

    My immediate response to that is HELL NO look at the atom bomb–created with real science more or less in its infancy, or at best, in its childhood. We now stand on the cusp of adolescent level mistakes in science; the ones with far-reaching consequences that are born almost entirely out of stupidity that almost anyone could see is a bad idea from the start.

    But then…I wonder. Perhaps all science is is a catalyst or a vehicle for change, and the we fear the change that will turn us into, perhaps, bionically implanted beings scarcely recognizable as humans, machines capable of killing not with the twitch of a finger, but with a glance of the eyes.

    What will come from science is inevitable; may as well try to hold back the tides. But it’s no less fearsome a prospect. In fact, of all of the horrific, apocalypse-based nightmares I’ve had (and I have them almost on a nightly basis) the ones where the scientists and the sales people ran amok was far and away the most terrifying–and that because of its sheer plausibility.

  30. “it was most class-conscious, politically sophisticated, knowledgeable workers who put themselves in the front lines, and were the most self-sacrificing.”

    Yes! They were not the sort of people to send a bunch of cannon-fodder to the front to protect them, and later when they were needed they weren’t there. Replaced by people who did not have it thought out, who set things up badly.

    They weren’t ready for the revolution, but they didn’t get to decide when it happened. I don’t know enough of the history to guess whether the Bolshevik revolution could have been delayed or avoided in favor of more persuasion and education, but I’m sure it would have been better if that had been doable.

  31. “My immediate response to that is HELL NO look at the atom bomb–created with real science more or less in its infancy, or at best, in its childhood.”

    Scientists did that billion-dollar project because a government told them to. If their funding had depended on peer-reviewed research proposals, it’s very unlikely it would have gotten that far. ;->

    I like the idea of actually trying to find out the truth starting with lab-bench experiments, and building up gradually before trying out theories that risk the whole world. If we had started with experiments that gradually increased their scale as we had promising early results, we likely would not have developed anything like our banking system.

    If we actually got scientists studying economics in place of economists, we might possibly develop something that worked.

  32. “Maybe the problem for Russia and China was that there weren’t that many socialists…”

    So far as I know, Mao’s cultural revolution was a disaster. But so far as I know, the problem in the USSR after the revolution was not vindictiveness. It was that formerly privileged people resented being treated the same as everyone else. To the privileged, being treated the same as or a little better than the way they had treated everyone else is a punishment.

  33. “But so far as I know, the problem in the USSR after the revolution was not vindictiveness. It was that formerly privileged people resented being treated the same as everyone else.”

    I don’t know. Everything I read might be propaganda designed intentionally to mislead me. What particularly stands out for me is Nicolai Borodin’s autobiography, “One Man in His Times”. After the Whites were beaten, he went to school and the children of non-proletarians got big disadvantages. He wasn’t bothered about it. In the army a formerly privileged conscript was upset to be on latrine duty all the time. Borodin pointed out that he personally didn’t mind latrine duty, it clears the sinuses etc. Maybe it was the guy’s complaints about it that put him on latrine duty all the time, instead of just rotations.

    Borodin got his degree in microbiology. He knew people with the wrong parents who did OK in school before that, but who couldn’t get in. One did get in, and couldn’t get a job afterward. Wherever Borodin went, there were older men who had the ranking positions, and they were getting cleared out because they were left over from before, and Borodin could rise quickly. He was very pleased by that.

    I found it a good read. He presented himself as apolitical. He lived through the troubles as an orphan, and later the purges. He may not have let the truth get in the way of a good story, and he may have had a keen ear for what would sell in the west.

    He told a story about when he worked in the Transcaucasus, two senior men hated each other, and each of them spread rumors that the other was plotting to have the Transcaucasus secede from the USSR. They were arrested for plotting together to have the Transcaucasus secede from the USSR. After WWII as a senior microbiologist he was sent to Britain to buy machinery to make penicillin, and his two assistants hated each other. They each reported to him that the other planned to defect. He realized that they would inform security, they would both be arrested or possibly defect, and he would look bad to have two such assistants. So he defected.

    It didn’t read like he was trying to make the USSR look bad. He lived through some very bad times and some good ones, and he was proud of his accomplishments. But if he was in fact trying to spread disinformation, that’s the best way to do it….

    I’ve seen various reports that children of bourgeois parents had it bad. But then, under Stalin the old “Intellectuals” also had it bad. People who had learned about socialism from someone other than Stalin’s supporters were considered unreliable.

    And yet, everything I’ve seen has been for sale in the USA and could have been falsified.

    I don’t know. We can agree that it should not have been that way. Maybe it was.

  34. This really isn’t my area of expertise, so maybe the former bourgeoisie were treated vindictively in the USSR. Violent revolution is inevitably messy, and the killing of the Russian royal family was about as vindictive as anyone could get. But I think you have to distinguish between the systematic punishment of Mao’s cultural revolution and a number of individual Russians who didn’t understand systems and therefore blamed individuals.

  35. It isn’t my area of expertise either. But in a system where important people get power and prestige and money, and less important people get more money than people who are less important still, lots of people will try to claw their way up the ladder. And anything that makes whole classes of people less competition is good for them.

    Again, this wasn’t the ideal that people started out wanting, but by the time Stalin took over people who appeared to be loyal to Stalin had the strong advantage over people for whom evidence of disloyalty could be found. Having non-proletarian parents or once joining a faction that was not pro-Stalin were easy ways to get discredited.

    There’s no way to be sure what would have happened if more real socialists had survived, but I want to hope it would have been different.

  36. That strikes me as a little bit…I don’t know what the word for “If the goalie wasn’t there I TOTALLY would have scored”.

    What happened is what happened, what was always going to happen. It’s more productive, in my opinion, to imagine what would likely happen if a real socialist movement happened again, in today’s world. We could call it forecasting instead of wishful thinking. The idea is to see what went wrong the first time and try to make it so that it doesn’t go wrong the next time.

    I’m very interested to see if the NDP up here in Canada form a majority government. They’re not socialists, and they’re not going to get a majority, but it would be something to see if they were, and they did.

  37. “What happened is what happened, what was always going to happen.”

    Are you a Presbyterian, that you believe in predestination?

    “The idea is to see what went wrong the first time and try to make it so that it doesn’t go wrong the next time.”

    OK, I’ll try to give a super-simplified version, short enough to discuss quickly on the net. If you think some other super-simplified story is better, tell it.

    WWI went disastrously for Russia, to the point they had a revolution. Then some people who had been advocating for revolution before, tried to start a new government. Since they had been basicly crackpots with little popular support who didn’t agree with each other much, they didn’t get much done. A faction among them took over from the rest, and still couldn’t get much done. People who liked the old way better tried to revolt, there was foreign intervention, and what with one thing and another there was widespread destruction and rather much starvation. People who didn’t particularly support one side or the other wanted the fighting to stop and took sides, and eventually the Reds won. They thought there were still a lot of disaffected White saboteurs, and they tried to get rid of them. Also they could blame failures on the “wreckers and saboteurs”. But the hunt for disloyal whites removed any vestige of peaceful cooperation, and the guys who were looking for disloyalty to Stalin looked harder and harder, creating a sort of witch hunt. To my way of thinking by this point things were almost totally wrong, although the economy was improving fast enough that by the time the Nazis invaded they had a superbly strong army that eventually won.

    To keep it from going wrong next time, I say don’t have the revolution until you have a whole lot of people who are clearly agreed about what they want. Preferably a large majority. They should practice the new ways before they take over the government, so people will know things are supposed to work. Like, if you want a new economic approach, try to get the old government to declare it legal, and get it working in parallel with the old way. If the majority of the people know what they’re doing, then it can’t be stopped by killing a few thousand or a few hundred thousand leaders.

    The problem is, if the people who’re already running things do too badly, you can’t delay the revolution until you’re ready. It isn’t something that anybody can control, it happens when people get too disgusted. So it can all go wrong at the beginning and there isn’t much you can do to stop that.

  38. J Thomas: who puts more engineers and other technical minded people in more positions of political power? Communists. Look up the biographies of most of the leaders of the Soviet Union post-Stalin.

  39. I don’t believe in predestination, at least, not in any normal sense of the word. I believe that if you put a whole bunch of fruit into a blender, you’re probably going to get a smoothie; but some smoothies are tastier than others. It depends on the ingredients you put in, really. But that’s not predestination; that’s causation.

    If you put a bunch of humans into a society that requires them to behave not as humans do, is anyone surprised when the whole things goes to shit? That’s what I meant when I said “…what was always going to happen.”

    @PrivateIron, re: engineers in power: that’s also a problem. Engineering students are told not to marry another engineer as part of their education. The same reason that advice exists probably holds true for government as well. Imagine if John Stuart Mills ran the UN…wait…

  40. “If you put a bunch of humans into a society that requires them to behave not as humans do, is anyone surprised when the whole things goes to shit?”

    There are a whole lot of human cultures, and observation shows that people are tremendously variable in what they do in different circumstances.

    It appears that during the Soviet purges a whole lot of people behaved in ways I consider inhuman. The Soviet apparatchiks spent years being trained to behave inhumanly. Various things happened in Maoist china similarly, and the US air force. We had a whole lot of people who were specifically trained to make sure that if a nuclear war started, they would do their jobs and continue it until everybody in the world died including themselves. “We” (meaning the US government with the implicit support of its citizens) trained diplomats to do “brinksmanship” where they escalated their demands and threats until the USSR backed down, with no regard for the possibility that a nuclear war might start.

    Given years to work out the personal implications of unusual behavior, people may do things you wouldn’t begin to suspect ahead of time, if those are what results in personal “success”. Given generations, we can get exceptionally strange cultures.

    It isn’t very workable to hope that people will behave in ways they aren’t used to just because you want them to. But given any particular peculiar behavior, it doesn’t work to assume they can’t be induced to do it.

  41. People will almost always choose a lesser benefit now than a greater benefit later. Example: the maladies of instant gratification.

    As a corollary, people will almost always do anything to stop a pain now even at the expense of things that are critical to their continued well-being. Example: addiction.

    Furthermore, people will almost always seek to avoid future pain at the expense of achieving an moderately more valued future goal. Example: the politics of fear.

    People just don’t consistently perform selfless altruism without extensive retraining. I feel, based on what little I know about communism, that those who believed communist dream seized an exciting opportunity to for their dreams to be realized…and in their excitement glossed over the reality that that re-training had never taken place–in essence, followed a mirage in the desert. In terms of what I’m saying, they ignored the present pain of the necessity of putting in the groundwork first, and avoided the future pain of watching the opportunity to realize a great dream pass them by because the timing just wasn’t right…at the expense of everything that the socialist republic became.

    And, aside from the logical fallacy involved, I also disagree with your definition of what is and isn’t “human” behaviour. If torture was inhuman, if carnage, killing and rape were inhuman, I doubt we’d be having this conversation right now. We are capable of these actions. You, personally, are capable of these actions. So am I. In the presence of the right circumstances, any one of us could have been, if I may Godwin myself, a Nazi, for example. Hannah Arendt’s seminal work “Eichmann in Jerusalem” demonstrates that. And the first step in overcoming those brutal urges is to recognize that they’re possible in each and every one of us. It is, in my experience, often thus–that a truth is revealed when an apparent contradiction is nearby. To PERSONALIZE it is to make it real in your life. No one cares about a stranger getting killed or whatever; but as soon as that stranger is someone you know in even the slightest fashion, it suddenly jumps up in your priority list. And if that person is a friend or family member, it becomes a life-altering event. But this isn’t about fear; it’s about education. The burned hand teaches best. And admitting the very real possibility of a “burned hand” often provokes the same response to prevent it as the actual burning would do. But it is the person who says “Never in a million years…” who suddenly finds that they are vulnerable at the very moment when they cannot do anything to mitigate the damage about to happen.

  42. “As a corollary, people will almost always do anything to stop a pain now even at the expense of things that are critical to their continued well-being. Example: addiction.”

    Good example. Some people are deeply susceptible to some addictions, others much less so. What makes the difference? I’m not sure, but it falsifies your “people will almost always do anything” claim.

    In my experience, people have a hierarchy of needs. They care about needs that are lower in the hierarchy only when the higher needs are satiated or fully denied.

    The highest need is a sense of identity.
    Below that is excitement.
    Below that is security.

    To a surprisingly large extent people choose their own sense of identity, they choose for themselves what they consider exciting, and they choose what they consider to be security.

    So while this hierarchy has great explanatory power, it does not have such great predictive power.

    “In the presence of the right circumstances, any one of us could have been, if I may Godwin myself, a Nazi, for example.”

    I think you’re right. But the right circumstances are different for different people. If my sense of self does not allow me to be a Nazi, then the circumstances that turn me into a Nazi must include ways for me to pretend that I have not done it. For example, I might act like a Nazi in almost every way, while believing that it is Nazis that I am fighting and that my behavior is correct because I am on the right side.

    Meanwhile, somebody who has no qualms about being a Nazi might do it because his life is too boring, and somebody who has no qualms and who also gets enough stimulation might do it for the paycheck and retirement benefits.

    “People just don’t consistently perform selfless altruism without extensive retraining. I feel, based on what little I know about communism, that those who believed communist dream seized an exciting opportunity to for their dreams to be realized…and in their excitement glossed over the reality that that re-training had never taken place”

    Sure, but consider that first they had to find a place in a mostly-leaderless existing revolution, then win against a counter-revolution and some invasions, and reconstruct an economy to limit the starvation. They tried to do your re-training on-the-fly and didn’t get that much done before Stalin took over. Looking back, it’s easy to see that stopping Stalin should have been a higher priority, but it’s hard to see that sort of thing ahead of time. If they’d stopped Stalin they might have faced Zhelezin or Serebrin or Latunin or whoever. There were many ways to fail, and hindsight only tells us about the one that people believe happened.

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