Saturday, March 9, 2013

Tolerance and Respect

If you read my first post, titled "The Introductory Intolerant Rant," I may have disappointed you thus far, since the introduction sets the tone for future production. It's not that I don't rant - obviously, I rant like an elderly Fox News watcher, particularly when I'm in a cynical mood, which is most of the time. But I haven't really displayed much in the way of intolerance, except for some doubts about the dismissal of gender roles.

I need to fix that, and I'll get on it one of these days, promise.

Tolerance is central to much of the worldview I've rejected, not as a practice but as an ideal. In practice, using colloquial terms, what tolerance means is that you restrain yourself from beating the living shit out of people on a daily basis, which is obviously sound advice for those of us who want to avoid prison. We have to tolerate that which irritates and provokes us, both in terms of people and in terms of the furnace which makes a weird noise we can't afford to get looked at right now, and the smell of the office after lunch at the Mexican restaurant, and pretty much everything that happens to your body past the age of sixty. That meaning of the word is obvious and intuitive. But in moral discourse, tolerance has been given a fresh position in the last few decades.

In contemporary ideological terms, tolerance is basically indistinguishable from non-judgmentalism. It's all about rejecting bias based on race, creed, gender, whathaveyou. It's about accepting, not imposing, being permissive. And it means precisely the opposite of what I've been saying people actually do; evaluate one another. Tolerance is distinct from minding your business, because tolerance is an attitude being imposed on you, an attitude of explicitly refusing to make value judgments on people and looking at them "neutrally."

You can see in modern attitudes how this sentiment of not evaluating promotes itself as a moral good. We always hear about the people who seem different, but at the end of the day, are just like us, thus undermining our intuitive evaluation. We must "save" everything, preserve it and protect it from those who continue to consider their value like assholes; many forms of change - and particularly, the creative destruction of capitalism - are looked on with disgust. Who are we to evaluate the world, and affect it according to our evaluations? Who are we to judge?

Through this perspective, it becomes easier to see the most flagrant problem with tolerance; it is a standard in itself, and holding this standard leads to intolerance, because you de-value the intolerant. And we know this happens; everyone evaluates, so let's not talk about this as if it's genuine Christian self-abnegation put into practice. It's a shifting of values, not a dismissal of them, and the people who insist on the behavior they're seeking are every bit as judgmental as anyone else. Anyone who really believes in the low value of their perspective would never have opened their mouth in the first place.

Awesomely, there is such a thing as a "paradox of tolerance", in which the obvious case of hating intolerant people is itself intolerant, and none other than John Rawls has spun his brain cells around the notion before finally saying that we need to decide to tolerate intolerant groups on a case-by-case basis. In other words, he gave up and said nothing of value, which makes perfect sense given the value of the rest of his thinking. But it brings up the ultimate point about the idea: trying to create pluralism is self-defeating. Pluralism is an ideal, with its own goals and valued states, which means that other states are not as good. So, if that ideal is superior to you, what about other ideals?

It's ridiculous: social norms and shared values exist because addressing conflicts of interests is the most difficult and necessary job in the continued quest for human advancement, and these tolerance-spouting idiots have decided that the best way to handle it is to not handle it at all.

The notion of being able to have whatever you want without conflict is ludicrous when you actually consider it - it's a competitive society, dumbass - but like other affecting ideas, it's a product of our old worldview and our current power structure. The old worldview started with individualism nd seems determined to end there; the current power structure favors market exchange, and the ideal of pluralism is purely consumerist. You're supposed to pick and choose the ideas that you like and want to adopt as if you're choosing what looks tasty on a restaurant menu, nothing worth fighting over, which annihilates the meaning of it.

Of course, by the time you're consciously making these decisions, the important value programming has already been done, but plenty of liberal ideas align with the notion of the self as capable of full autonomy in personal matters. That's essentially Nietzschean thinking, powerfully existentialist, striving for authenticity. And yet, most people who buy into pluralism seem so sure that everyone can strive for this authenticity but still get along peacefully and happily, everyone working for everyone else's welfare, a humanity inherently good. Nietzsche didn't buy that shit. Nietzsche recognized the power instinct for what it was, and knew that conflicts of interest were inevitable, that hierarchy and cruelty were to be expected, that suppressing aggression required threat of pain and internalization of that cruelty. Nietzsche wasn't much interested in delusions. He wanted to understand how people actually were. And his conclusions about who they were - and are - reflect economic realities, the realities of people competing in a situation of scarcity.

Nietzsche's Economic Man

As humans operate in their social environment, some behaviors are simply necessary, including evaluating other people. It should be obvious that people size each other up, noticing things about each other's appearance and mannerisms that indicate facets of character. When we talk to someone, we further get to know them and formulate a theory of the mind that describes what kind of person we're dealing with. This sucks if you're a non-judgmental, tolerant person; we shouldn't judge books by their cover. And it's true that our evaluations are fallible, but that's less relevant than the reality that they are necessary evaluations. We must grade one another; some people we want to meet, we want to talk to, be around, get to know, learn from them, use them. Some people, we don't want anything to do with, or at least, there are others that are more worthy of our time. But you have to choose; you can't walk into a room with a hundred people in it and say to yourself, "I think I'll just get to know everyone." You don't have the attention span. And if your values guide you towards someone like you, or if you think of yourself as open-minded and your values guide you towards someone because they are purposefully unlike you, then either way, your values have been displayed, and you have implicitly rejected everyone else you could have introduced yourself to.

When the bullshit is put to the side, we have value to one another because we can be used: do you want to spend time around people who do absolutely nothing for you? Not funny, not smart, not attractive, not friendly, not comforting, not capable of intuitively understanding where you're coming from? Not unless you're absolutely desperate for company, and there are precious few decent people who are without companionship, because decency is valuable to others. Decent people are worth the attention, worth the time, and worth the investment of understanding who they are and forging bonds.

In what we do, and what we don't do, we inevitably affect each other. Choices are made, and must be made. This is called "being alive". The choices of people broadly follow patterns in a society that holds certain values, communicates them, and passes them on to their children and other newcomers; the decisions create a series of interrelated norms which constitute our moral ecosystem, and a society needs these norms to reduce friction on the parts. This is called "decency" or maybe "manners".

Human interactions are economic interactions, and they are competitive. Attention, one of our scarcest resources now, must be spent selectively, and we have always chosen our company based on the quality of the options we have. Who we spend time with, and don't spend time with, always makes up a series of rejections and reinforcements. Even if the values change, even if the deeper elements of character - like morality - are ignored as just cultural bias, some other, more shallow set of values takes their place, attraction based on lesser traits like some fashion statement. To a person who prizes tolerance, the opportunity costs of acknowledging one over another constitutes a tragedy. But there is no culture in which all are equal and costs are not met, where structure comes to the service of the individual at the bottom instead of the top. Even today, with our teeth-gnashing populism, the situation is still under the control of business-people and those who can use the media effectively. The unfortunate are just there to be held up, a tool for the manipulation of our fragmented ethical wanderings. Don't even suggest to these people that any sort of ostracism can be defended as maintaining cultural standards; they want those standards gone.

What People Actually Want

Economists describe products in a variety of ways, and one way is by dividing them into normal goods and inferior goods. These notions have demonstrable, mathematical definitions, of course: a normal good is one that, if you find yourself with more money, you will typically buy more of. Most goods fall into this category, as more is, rationally, almost always better than less. An inferior good is one that, if you find yourself with more money, you will buy less of. The examples are more intuitive than anything: Ramen noodles are an inferior good, because it's what broke-ass college students eat in lieu of real food. Basically, an inferior good is something we acknowledge as crappy but acquire anyway, since we can't have what we actually want.

The point of this is simple: tolerance is an inferior good. Tolerating is something we have to do with shit we cannot change. And if you, as an individual, want to simply be tolerated by the rest of the world, then there is something terribly wrong with your self-esteem. No one wants to be tolerated. None of the demographic groups we look at as being in need of tolerance would, if the terms were laid before them with clear meanings, want to be tolerated. Those who have been disenfranchised by society do not want to be tolerated. When people find themselves around others that they value, tolerance is simply not what they're after. What they want is much more compelling:

They want respect.

The pushing of tolerance is actually a push to try to create low-cost respect, but by definition, respect is not cheap. Rawls tried to make self-esteem a "primary good," one owed to the individual by society, but to do so would kill all the meaning because respect must be earned. Within a society, respect requires understanding, a gauge of value, a standard to judge by. Respect across cultural lines requires a respect for the lines themselves, a natural product of the inherent conflict that comes from having ideals and being willing to stand up for them. Trying to blend the two into a tolerant state in which your ideals are not acted on negates the ideals themselves, reducing them to mere consumer preferences, leaving only the bare animal of man fighting for his material self-interest.

This is not a light assertion, but it is a rational one. Garnering respect requires making yourself valuable to others, which requires knowing and conforming to their value system. The utility of living in a society with clear, broadly shared values, conventions, and standards of behavior is obvious from this perspective; it allows people to be a society. Of course some are worth less than others according to any coherent value system: that's what gives the values definition. Pushing tolerance only haphazardly allows people to be in relatively close proximity without killing each other, and in any situation - like the distribution of attention - where scarcity asserts itself, tolerance should not be expected to prevent conflict or encourage anything resembling unity. Tolerance as a social good just leads to a society with less trust, more locked doors, a society more alienated, less functional, with higher transaction costs and a well-earned reflex towards insensitivity. A society needs ideals, needs a template of shared values and legitimate hierarchy which provides a lens through which the world can be arranged, a standard of excellence.

A society without that standard is a society in a state of entropy.

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