Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Good and the Free

The contrast attains its maximum when, in accordance with the logical consequences of slave-morality, a shade of depreciation - it may be slight and well-intentioned - at last attaches itself to the good man of this morality; because, according to the servile mode of thought, the good man must in any case be the safe man: he is good-natured, easily deceived, maybe a little stupid, un bonhomme. Everywhere that slave-morality gains ascendancy, language shows a tendency to approximate the significations of the words "good" and "stupid".                                     -Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, A 260
I'm trying something different. Having asked about a million times what makes Americans what they are and how this has come about from the Western intellectual tradition, my usual method of deconstructing American ideas just isn't cutting it anymore. It works poorly. We don't just explicitly say who we are, what we expect, what we value, what we like, or what defines us as a culture. We show it, very obviously, but we don't clearly define it. It's like jazz music: the musicians never play the exact melody, but on an intuitive level, anyone can hear that melody crystal clear.

So in an effort to make what I see more clear, I'm not going to deconstruct so much as I'm going to talk about stereotypes of what we like, what our ideals are for what we should be. Stereotypes are useful here because it's easier to imagine a reaction to common descriptive traits than it is to painstakingly build an exacting cultural terminology. You can muddle this up easily by getting into specifics, but the entire point of the exercise is to avoid that. Think about what these stereotypes generally look like when you see them in action.

Let's start by going back to innocence. The post is reasonably good but incomplete, because the stereotype of innocence is incredibly compelling in this culture and because we have a lot of current issues which revolve around innocence as part of a belief system without saying anything about it directly. It's in our ironic detachment, in our mythos and entertainment, and in our political attitudes towards everything from guns to public housing.

In the interests of simplicity, I've boiled the stereotype of innocence down to three characteristics that are widely demonstrated by people who are considered innocent. They are:

  • Harmlessness. An innocent person isn't just someone who chooses not to harm other living things, but someone who finds the idea of harming other living things to be so abhorrent that they will not seriously consider doing it even when their own welfare is at stake. Harm also includes NOT helping when you see someone else in trouble and you have the ability to help, of course. Expect a dichotomy to develop between thinking strategically about your interactions with others and empathizing with others. This is the most important element of innocence to most people.
  • Openness. Those who are innocent are also those who do not divide themselves into groups against other people, who look at everyone with fresh eyes, who believe the best about people, trusting everyone, who welcome all with the expectation that kindness delivered will be appreciated and reciprocated. This isn't quite egalitarianism, as anyone can have special relationships, but it is a clear rejection of group-based preferences and conflict. 
  • Joyfulness. An innocent enjoys life. We are here to make life better for each other, through our interactions, our love, our desire to empathetically share the positive in our lives with others. There may be pain, but there is also the hope for a very short memory, a forgiveness which keeps the past from screwing up our good time in the moment.

We're looking at more than a simple categorical set here. There's an essence to innocence, a wide-eyed wonder that, when we see it, encapsulates a lot of dreams we have for ourselves and our future. Innocence is essentially the prerequisite of goodness. Even if circumstances and the need for self-preservation don't allow you to be innocence in practice, we all want to see ourselves as innocent by intention. In practice, it's naivete, but in theory, the lack of corruption can even make truth more accessible.

You can see this innocence expressed in popular, positive stereotypes about children. Children supposedly like everyone they meet, at least to begin with. Children are of course not dangerous, and the smaller the better. And children do not walk around the world viewing everyone with suspicion just because they've felt a little pain. They are enjoying themselves, absorbing everything but not casting judgments which will set their character, and they don't lash out until the terrible teens. Such positive stereotypes of innocence are also found in household pets and the severely mentally handicapped.

Children are, supposedly, good until an adult makes them bad through some sort of abuse. That abuse, and the logical memory of harm leading to caution results in what is broadly seen by some people as a "loss of innocence". Which Westerners consider a tragedy. The more willing to forgive and forget and maintain an open, universal trust in others, the longer innocence is maintained.


Continuing the theme of the Libertarian/Authoritarian post, freedom holds a certain stereotype in popular culture as well. You've heard of a "free spirit", right? Describe one, right now. What does that person look like?

Libertarians and some conservatives love freedom as a political ideal, but their understanding of freedom is not behavioral or cultural, but more legal. In their eyes, freedom is a state of sovereignty: it really just means that the law is, on a structural level, explicitly individualist. Libertarians and conservatives not only accept personal responsibility in the resulting social equation, but encourage and appreciate it, so while they support freedom, it is a different freedom than what many people interpret when that word is used.

Modern liberals, socialists, left-libertarians and many others are more aligned with the "free spirit" idea. It's a set of traits which constitute a person unhindered by burden and unblemished by sin.

Here are some traits that seem to fall into the stereotype of freedom:

  • Over-sharing, or constant self-expression. A free people is a conversational people. When we don't talk, we're considered vaguely suspicious or it may be assumed that we've seen abuse, or simply an insecurity created by some fear or boundary. We don't like loners. But we do like to see others confiding in us, presenting an artistic side that reveals themselves. More communication is almost defined as more indicative of liberation and choice.
  • Lack of seriousness. When the chips are down, we know we need to get serious, but we'd rather not. Seriousness shows weight, which is difficult to discern from guilt, or a feeling of responsibility that is tied to unwelcome perceptions of power. This is how a free people goes about its day to day, with joy.
  • Curiosity and bias towards change. Learn about everything, experience everything, experiment to your heart's content. Also seen in our exuberant irreverence for the old. Everyone makes their mark, or so we hope. For that mark to be made, we must also allow for whatever was in place before to wither. Can we really be free if we are pushed into doing things the same way as those before us? Of course not. As Jonathan Haidt said, change is fun and exciting, particularly if you don't like the status quo.
  • Love of diversity. Self-explanatory and closely related to the change/curiosity bias. We are simply obsessed with having the greatest possible variety of experiences to choose from. People who are free buck trends and other pressures whenever they choose and appreciate when others do so as well. Might apply to cultural diversity, but the diversity element is subject to personal choice, so anything requiring commitment or exclusivity gets no love.
  • Generosity and compassion. Related to the belief that all people are born with inalienable dignity. Applies particularly when felt for those who are victimized, which a free people will not tolerate. This is compassion as instinct, compassion as the accepted normal reaction from people operating within the boundaries of good mental health. It's not forced or pressured by any outside source, but an inborn human instinct which needs minimal cultivation. We care about each other. We're born caring about each other, and believe that not caring is the result of pressures from prejudices or employers or some other imposed barrier.

Just as children symbolize innocence, so they also symbolize freedom. Recent generations have shown a desire to return to childhood whenever possible, or not grow up at all. And why wouldn't they? In a culture that tries to psychoanalyze children and give them space instead of using discipline to prepare them for adulthood, being a child is a carefree pleasure cruise.

It's pretty obvious that there's a lot of overlap here. For Western people, innocence and freedom go hand in hand. There is a perpetual idea which, with some exceptions, usually goes without being articulated, but is obvious anyway:

To be good is to be free.

It makes a certain sense. Openly bad people cannot be free, lest they make each other miserable. Bad people under discipline of social authority and order may not kill each other, but they will not consider themselves free as they are heavily restrained from their core intentions. Only good people can be free, and similarly, only a free people can really be considered good.

You can look at this statement two ways. First, you can see it as the practical security you get from accepting and adapting to your society's behavioral standards, resulting in a harmonious meeting of expectations and actions. But that's a perspective of strategic self-interest, or a cynical one (there's no difference in the West). Instead, you want to see this as someone who is fully vested in the Western experience sees it: you are supposed to be a good person, your most authentic self is a good person, and once the petty bickering is ended and antagonisms cease to exist, the guilt we experience from having to fight others for our existence will go with it. On a spiritual level, that's when we will be truly free.

You can smell the religion.

In fact, without theology, this is nonsensical garbage.

When I was younger, I believed that Christian beliefs were preached to make people more amenable to authority. Historically, this is absurd - Christianity is far too young for that, large scale complex society having existed for thousands of years before its rise and was predicated on the very different ideals of honor society. But the basic concept of trusting, easily led sheep continues to get a lot of lip service. On the surface, they're the perfect subjects. Deeper down, not so much: they're extremely anti-authoritarian, following only God or, on a more sophisticated level, a vision of natural order inseparable from the idea of God.

You will note that these are ideals, not necessarily realities. Ugly realities of living in a society preoccupied with freedom and innocence - shallow Epicurian pleasure-seeking, the plunge to the lowest common denominator, an outrageous sense of self-worth and entitlement, a confused perspective on where to place the boundaries of blame - need not come up in this particular conversation, because what we like is every bit as telling as what we are like.

Notice also that the ideals here are not organized into any specific relationships, a la the openness trait. They are how everyone is supposed to think of, and treat, anyone. Straight from Kant's categorical imperative, ideals like these are built on defining characteristics of good people, behaviors which are applied to every facet of who we are and which come to the fore with everyone, not just our own people, never isolated to just specific relationships or loyalties. To be true, they must be universal.

Openness has been granted a special status, providing the basis for nondiscrimination as a social ideal. The "open society" is the only good society, all others being considered dangerous, even if being open and vulnerable is nakedly irrational in a strategic sense. Notice that Donald Trump's presidential campaign is being heavily demonized. And why is that? Because he's a nationalist and advocates nationalist policy: American exceptionalism, tightened borders, competition with other nations, cultural identity. Modern Americans aren't supposed to be that way. They're supposed to be universalist, individualist, willing to see people from other nations as neighbors just as they see their actual next-door neighbors.

But of course, other peoples do not deify innocence the way we do, leading to some obvious friction between our hopes and our reality. Multiculturalism was an attempt to look at other peoples with sympathy, but we still have our own perspective and, in the name of "common humanity", assumed they looked at things as we looked at things, hating authority figures and loving the vulnerable for their accessibility.

So instead of promoting the idea that other cultures hold as much validity as our own, all this really does is reinforce the idea that our culture is uniquely right in theory if not practice, while damning other cultures which impose the opposite discipline and conflict with our social goal of painless liberation. It feeds into stronger prejudice.

It's important to understand this perspective if you want to understand your society. Both sides of the political coin have it, and with blurred lines between their visions. For some, taking on the burdens of a conflict-ridden world hostile to innocence is a heroic act, a sacrifice for others made from love. You can see this attitude in comic book movies, where incredibly strong heroes agonize over the blood on their hands all the time. The appetite for such heroes comes from a conservative outlook, hoping for a leader and savior we can trust with power.

But there is also the more literal interpretation of innocence which reviles power, believes it is fundamentally corrupting to innocence, and it's the divisions and willingness to compete and harm and looking at the world egoistically sitting at the core of all problems. This mindset will be one for all, all for one, go for broke... and paradoxically leads to an even more strident and extreme hatred of status quo. Revolutionary crackpots think this way. And all through Western society, we're never too far from that. It's in our ideological DNA.

I would suggest you fight it, and to see struggle and division and power and risk and inequality as what they are: the fundamental drivers of a dynamic existence, critical to a meaningful life.


  1. Much said, much appreciate, much yet to digest and think about. Love the way your mind works.

  2. "...your most authentic self is a good person..."
    "You can smell the religion"

    Maybe new age humanistic atheism... but not Christianity.
    Christianity recognizes the innate evil within the human psyche. Greed, envy, pride; present in all but one man, which fuels rebellion against God.

  3. You cannot be free without self-restraint.

  4. The new age humanistic "atheism" is itself a descendant of Judeo-Christian ideas. There are a couple of ways to see this:

    First, actions like greed, envy, and pride are, from a non-religious perspective, merely self-interested; calling them evil is theological by definition. If there's a certain facepalming going on because you think that the division of good and evil does not necessarily indicate Judeo-Christian thought, then you aren't seeing just how deeply embedded Christian ideas are into the Western worldview. Suffice it to say, deontology and virtue ethics always have a touch of Christian perspective holding up their legitimacy, as they make no sense without some sort of metaphysics.

    Second, theologically, you're wrong about Christianity just as you are about new age humanism. Christianity describes man as fallen, which obviously requires that there was something higher they were intended for and originally created for. That would be the Eden of natural law/God's moral order. Split hairs denominationally all you want, but the vast bulk of Christian ideology, from Catholic Thomism to the Quaker doctrine of the inner light, views man as created in the image of God and, while obviously corrupted, still having been created for good.

    The idea that Christianity does not see people as good comes mostly from evangelical Christians in the 70's who wanted to distance themselves from permissive mainline Protestants and Vatican 2 Catholics who promoted easy forgiveness and flexible dogma.

    This matters once you start looking at how some interpretations have taken pieces of a well-developed systematic ideology for their own agenda, and tried to fit ideas together which have no business being together due to a very shallow understanding of them.