I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in myself that I’ve had for quite some time: a desire to defend history’s villains. But I think I’ve finally understood why: to think someone is a villain is to not understand them properly. To understand someone as hero or villain is to short circuit all potential for empathy or understanding beyond a superficial level.
We can justifiably say someone has led a heroic/villainous life, but a hero/villain label is inevitably platonifying: trying to make simple and easy to understand what in reality is always complex and uneven. When we try to erase life’s rough edges we end up abolishing the reality of the man/woman and inserting a caricature of them in its place.
I have little doubt that part of the reason I’ve come to this conclusion is to preserve my own sense of self-respect and morality. I can continue believing as I do, with a small revision; it’s not that I’m pro-villain, it’s that I am anti-oversimplification, anti “telling lies for a good cause.” And I think that’s a more honest way of looking at the world.
In Benjamin Franklin: The First American, Walter Isaacson gently criticizes John Adams for lacking the “comfortable hypocrisy” that makes life pleasant. Both Franklin and Adams were extremely intelligent, capable, and moral men, but Adams refusal to compromise his sense of moral righteousness (among other things) ultimately led to Franklin being chosen over Adams as the key American ambassador to France, and hurt Adams’ legacy in a multitude of ways. Franklin, the consummate charmer, had mastered the art of easy-going morality, enjoying the companionship of those less enlightened than himself and letting people’s inevitable ignorance slide for the sake of prosperous relationships.
There’s a lot to be learned from Franklin in this regard. I know I have a tendency to focus on exact moral lines, which tends to be a recipe for driving myself insane and miserable (and probably those around me as well). Of course, having strong moral principles and integrity are important parts of being human (especially when we’re young and in need of guidance); the important thing is understanding where and when it’s appropriate to voice disapprove and when it’s best to let things slide. To put it another way, it’s not a matter relaxing our morals in a way that makes us complicit, but rather matching the punishment to the crime.
Note: There are many arenas whether this insight is applicable, but the current diversity space/movement probably needs to work on this most of all. Its frequent insistence on treating small, unintentional slights as full-blown offenses (http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/01/not-a-very-pc-thing-to-say.html) move us further away from any sort of progress.
I recently read a story about a fresh-out-of-college young man who was rejected for a job because he included a link to his personal blog on his application (a very common thing to do nowadays). Unfortunately, his personal blog was a very “personal” blog, including details of a masturbation and other NSFW activities, much to the shock and disgust of the hiring manager at the company he was applying for.
When asked to comment, the hiring manager said that he hoped the inclusion of the blog was an unintentional oversight. I doubt it was, as many young people are encouraged to let potential employers read their “personal” blogs without understanding that they are expected to maintain their online presence carefully. Of course, the details of how 21-year-old young men keep their sexual urges at bay isn’t something an employer needs to hear about. But for all that can be said about young people’s difficulties in judging what parts of their personal life should be made public, companies seem to be doing a particularly unadmirable job with the issue.
A simple google search will reveal a substantial number of articles about how/why to clean up your social media profile to keep incriminating evidence of your life away from finicky potential employees (you can even pay companies to clean up your profiles) but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of people questioning why you should have to in the first place.
Of course, screening out potential employees for arbitrary reasons is a company’s right (as a kid, a friend’s dad once told me he rejected a promising candidate because he didn’t like the man’s socks). But for employers that constantly declare they are “looking for great people” or “looking for new talent,” I would think pointlessly alienating potentially great candidates for posting evidence of their real lives online might not be a productive strategy.
Think of the companies who refused to hire 21+ year old employees because they have pictures of themselves consuming alcohol on their Facebook pages. How on earth does that have anything to do with their potential as an employee? Or, from the perspective of a talented young person, why on earth would you want to work for a company for which integrity about how you represent yourself is an obstacle to getting in the door?
For young perspective employees, there seems to be a decision between sterilizing our social media accounts (blogs included) and giving up on applying to work for certain companies. From a company’s perspective, the issue seems to be about deciding if reflexively discarding potentially promising young adults because of their digital lives is worth a lot missed potential.
“Few people understand the psychology of dealing with a highway traffic cop. Your normal speeder will panic and immediately pull over to the side when he sees the big red light behind him…and then we will start apologizing, begging for mercy. This is wrong. It arouses contempt in the cop-heart.
“The thing to do–when you’re running along about a hundred or so and you suddenly find a red-flashing CHP-tracker on your trail—what you want to do then is accelerate. Never pull over with the first siren-howl. Mash it down and make the bastard chase you at speeds up to 120 all the way to the next exit. He will follow. But he won’t know what to make of your blinker-signal that says you’re about to turn right.
“This is to let him now you’re looking for a proper place to pull off and talk…keep signaling and hope for an off-ramp, one of those uphill side-loops with a sign saying “Max Speed 25”… and the trick, at this point, is to suddenly leave the freeway and take him into the chute at no less than a hundred miles an hour. He will lock his brakes about the same time you lock yours, but it will take him a moment to realize that he’s about to make a 180-degree turn at this speed…but you will be ready for it, braced for the g’s and the fast heel-toe work, and with any luck at all you will have come to a complete stop off the road at the top of the turn and be standing beside your automobile by the time he catches up. He will not be reasonable at first…but no matter. Let him calm down. He will want the first word. Let him have it. His brain will be in a turmoil he may begin jabbering, or even pull his gun. Let him unwind; keep smiling. The idea is to show him that you were always in total control of yourself and your vehicle—while he lost control of everything.”
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The ability to force your hand, to make other people see you as an equal, is something that we take for granted. Obviously no sane person would endorse Thompson’s strategy for gaining the upper hand in power struggles against the CHP, but the power to assert ourselves on equal ground to others is a vital part of self-respect and personal freedom. Clint Smith gave a great TED talk on how African American parents have to teach their kids to be subservient to police at all times, while their white friends can get away with being assertive or even insolent.
Looking past racial issues, the problem also up with financial issues. Most people’s employment hinges on them maintaining a subservient relationship to their superiors (whether or not the superior chooses to abuse this power is a different issue). Only a small percentage of people earn enough or have the influence to enable them to say what they genuinely think at all times and not suffer serious career-damaging repercussions. Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls this “Fuck you money”: the amount of money you have to make to grant you the security to tell people exactly what you think of them at your pleasure and not have to keep up any pretext of social niceties when you don’t want to.
Of course, I’m not trying to imply that telling others off or challenging people unnecessarily is in any way a positive thing. Nor am I implying that the majority of people live lives of quiet desperation would be complete assholes if they weren’t repressed by society. A happy, productive life is hard to achieve when one is engaged in petty conflicts. But the ability to challenge others who we disapprove of and get away with it is incredibly important for self-respect and the feeling of people in control of our own destinies. Even if we never use it. And maybe it’s not something we value as much as we should.
In Good to Great, Jim Collins suggests that instead of spending time and resources “motivating the troops” companies would be better served focusing on eliminating demotivating factors. He argues that if you have the “right people on the bus” (people who are intrinsically motivated to do great work), the problem isn’t getting them to do great work, but getting rid of the inefficiencies and energy drains that keep them from doing great work.
This is also a great way to look at our own lives. Provided we have enough self-confidence to think our ourselves as a people with the potential to do great work (I hope this is the case), our time should be spent eliminating the things from our lives that drain our motivation (and you know, actually doing our work). Instead of frustrating ourselves looking for “something to inspire us” and “finding our passion,” most of us would be better off investing our time eliminating that shit from our lives that makes us want to give up and become invalids. Of course, some things will always suck. When we’re in our 20s we’re probably not going to be able to afford to pay someone to do our laundry for us. But a lot of the bullshit can be cut from our lives pretty easily if we invest the effort. This means getting organized, getting rid of useless shit, and cutting down contact with our stoner friends. For me, my obstructions are usually feeling overwhelmed, distracted, or disorganized (which probably sounds familiar). The solution is to prioritize on a note-card every morning, uninstall Facebook on my phone, and buy some damn folders. Works much better than beating myself up over my “lack of motivation.”
When I was a teenager, being called “deep” was an affirmation I constantly sought. I had a friend who would always come away from our conversation so impressed with my thoughts. “That’s so deep,” she’d say, and I’d be so pleased with myself.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize how ego-driven and superficial most of this was. If I think back to most of the “deep” conversations I used to have in high school, most of them were nothing more than regurgitated societal truisms or some flashy concept I’d read in a book the week before. Of course, like most of the social acknowledgments we yearn for in high school, “deepness” is ultimately just another affirmative title we use to prop up our value and self-worth. Perhaps striving to be acknowledged for our intellectual ability is a bit nobler than striving to be thought of as “hot,” “cool,” or “chill,” but it’s fundamentally just as superficial and status-driven.
I’d like to convince myself that our infatuation with sounding smart or profound is a problem confined to our teenage years, but observation tells me this is not the case. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be thought of as smart, but it’s important to remember that our worth is decided by what we accomplish, not our high sounding ideals.
If you look at hugely successful stand-up comedians like Aziz Ansari, Trevor Noah, and Amy Schumer, you’ll find that their acts are largely about highlighting the destructive behaviors we’ve become complicit in as a society. It’s not that any of them put on “social conscious” airs, rather that their jokes flow authentically from the observations and struggles of their lives. This is oversimplifying a bit, but for the most part Aziz focuses on the struggles of dating, Noah makes observations about race, and Schumer details her experiences being a woman.
These comedians value, and popularity, flows from the fact that thousands of people can relate to each of their experiences, or at least empathize enough to be fascinated with what they have to say. Sometimes we relate to the experience the comedians have had themselves–I knew exactly what Aziz was saying when he complained about having a conversation with a girl via text, asking her out, and then having her take two hours to response “yes” or “no”–but often times we’re forced to admit that we’re the people complicit in committing minor crimes against harmonious living. Whether we’re like Aziz’s well-meaning guy friends and encourage our hapless single friends to futility hit on women out of their league by saying things like “go talk to her bro, what’s the worst that can happen?”, or we irrationally feared African travelers during the Ebola crisis, we’re all largely complicit in some form of bad behavior or another without even realizing it.
These comedians are so successful because of their ability to get people to nod along and think, “hey yeah, that is total bullshit that people do that.” And, hopefully, if our defenses are down enough, we’ll let ourselves admit “hey yeah, it’s sorta bullshit that I do that.” And we become better people by acknowledging all the bad behavior we unconsciously commit because we didn’t know it was bad in the first place. After all, it was what everyone else is doing.