Book Summaries

The Error in Political Correctness (Week 29 of Wisdom)

What is wrong with political correctness? Answer: Hegel said it best.

The Hegelian dialectic comprises three dialectical stages of development: a thesis, giving rise to its reaction; an antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis; and the tension between the two being resolved by means of a synthesis. In more simplistic terms, one can consider it thus: problem → reaction → solution.

Since the beginning of time, there has been a battle between life and death, construction and destruction, Thanatos and Eros. An implication of the Dialectic, if true, is the necessity of destruction for progress (synthesis). In all products of creativity, we find the same critical ingredient: destruction. When you write a first draft of an essay, you must subject it to criticism if you are going to produce anything valuable. If you want to strengthen your argument, you must conceive of the most powerful counter argument.

It is intuitive to think that construction is good, and destruction is bad, but this is not a very sophisticated way of thinking about reality. Man hoards his possessions, preserves tradition, eats frequently, and in the supermarket, is spoiled with an endless number of items to choose from. The common rationale between these actions is that more is better, but this is only sometimes true. Of course, less can be more, which is a point that has been made in books like The Paradox of Choice, and movements that preach a minimalistic lifestyle.

When choice becomes a paradox, we must eliminate options. When possessions become clutter, we must eliminate them. In both cases, we benefit from destruction.

Even the way we eat would benefit from destruction. Our metabolism does not only consist of an anabolic state, but a catabolic state. A catabolic state occurs when we fast, which results in damage, but it is this damage that leads to DNA repair.

When we cook, we are destroying and re-configuring the elements in our food, so that we could eat more efficiently, and avoid microbial risks. Even the basic building blocks of life require a destructive process.

We focus on the benefits of plants for giving life, but we should give equal attention to funghi. Without funghi, the earth would have long ago suffered from being trapped under a blanket of organic matter created by plants.

But the more important point is that the act of destruction can be the only catalyst we have for progress, and if true, we should learn to embrace destruction, in everything that we do.

The Eastern philosophers had an interesting relationship with destruction. The practice of meditation, for example, does not ask you to read books, but the opposite – it impels you to clear your mind, to destroy your attachment to your own ephemeral thoughts. The Taoist, Lao Tzu understood the importance of nothingness (rather than something) when he said, “Thirty spokes share the hub of a wheel; yet it is its center that makes it useful. You can mould clay into a vessel; yet, it is its emptiness that makes it useful.”

In philosophy, there are plenty of examples. And I will try to go through the most notable examples. Descartes, for his part, destroyed the philosophical edifice that came before him when he postulated the possible existence of an evil demon. Before this point, philosophers thought that all reason and predictability in the universe is a result of a benevolent God. And that since this God was good, there was no reason to suspect that nature would be anything but good. And that if there was any bad in the world, it existed only to amplify the good. But Descartes showed that the converse was equally possible. That instead of a good God, there could be a maleficent demon, who was intent on playing tricks on us, so that we are led to believe that things worked according to a divine logic, but it was really just a trick, a sadistic way of manipulating us to put our faith entirely on reason – this, only to amplify our experience of suffering.

Hume with his radical skepticism, destroyed man’s confidence in rationality, when he showed how the causes and effects that we see in nature are provisional, that closer scrutiny reveals that what is apparently obvious to us is uncertain. Kant’s antonyms destroyed the discussion of “things in themselves” in the realms of space and time by pointing out that they would result in contradictions that could be argued for either way. Machiavelli destroyed a tradition that refused to make the reality of human politics explicit. The Romantic movement destroyed man’s faith in rationality, many years before the behavioral economists showed that homo economicus was a myth.

Freud destroyed our belief in conscious choice through his introduction of the unconscious. Jung destroyed Freud’s belief in the primacy of sexual instinct with his archetypes (link). Postmodernism destroyed the modern belief in progress and innovation. Whether all of these destructions have been successful is debatable, but what is important is that these authors were credited for their attempts at destruction, because each attempt, no matter how imperfect, shined a light on an inconsistency or an inaccuracy.

The Unmasking Trend, which is briefly discussed Ellenberger’s brilliant book, The Discovery of the Unconscious, is described as the systematic search for deception and self-deception. It is interested in uncovering the underlying truth (in France, this is known as demystification). Many thinkers were attracted to this pursuit.

Ellenberger traces the trend to La Rochefoucauld in his Maxims when he remarked that unmasked virtuous attitudes and acts as disguised manifestations of narcissism.

Schopenhauer described love as a mystification of the individual through the Genius of the Species, meaning that the qualities ascribed to the beloved are illusions, issuing from the unconscious will of the species. Karl Marx stated that the opinions of an individual, unknown to him, are conditioned by social class, which is determined by economic factors. War and religion are “mystifications,” in which the ruling classes deceive the lower classes and themselves. Nietzsche, who was an admirer of both the French moralists and of Schopenhauer, was another exponent of the unmasking trend. He untiringly pursued the manifestations of the will to power under its many disguises, and those of resentment under the guise of idealism and love of mankind. He emphasized man’s need for “fictions.” In contemporary literature, “unmasking” became an overdone theme. In Ibsen’s plays, for instance, some of the characters live in complete unawareness of the ugly reality behind the facades of their lives, until it is slowly or brutally revealed.

In popular books that have been written more recently, examples include Kahneman’s destruction the belief in man’s rationality through his introduction of numerous cognitive biases, Taleb does away with the predictive power of economic models through his discussion of the prevalence of randomness in reality and the hidden, oversized (fat tail) risks associated with rare events. Harari tries to dispel all modern stories that keep societies functional, such as Capitalism and religion, by describing them as “fictions.” Zizek makes the point that there can be no love without the fall. In modern society, man has removed the possibility of falling by offering a risk-free option of finding love without the fall. The selling point of dating apps like Tinder is that they preclude that possibility. In business, Peter Thiel undermined the widespread belief that competition was a good thing, by showing how competition prevents monopolies, the ultimate goal of any capitalistic pursuit.

The unmasking trend persists, and at its core, it is a skepticism of convention. What we can learn from these people is that progress depends on the destruction of previous depictions of reality. You cannot come up with anything new unless you destroy what came before you. A political revolution can only work if it destroys the system currently in place.  

Back to Hegel, who taught us that thesis and antithesis are necessary for synthesis. It would be a good thing, you might think, if most people embraced both their thesis and its antithesis, but what we find is that many individuals find themselves as either apologists or skeptics, proponents or critics, but by doing so, they prevent the improvement of their knowledge.

The danger of confirmation bias is not that it may result in a lack of empathy for the other side, it is that it prevents the possibility of higher understanding. Whenever you choose to stick to one point of view, you have allowed that perspective to take precedence over your will to understand reality. You become a prisoner to an idea or a meme while you mistakenly assume that you are the possessor.

Any discussion without a readiness to abandon previous convictions is pointless. This does not mean that you should not engage with someone who claims to know the truth, but you have an obligation, if you want to increasing your understanding, to take the conflicting standpoint, to play the devil’s advocate. If you have found yourself doing so automatically, it may be because you unconsciously seek deeper understanding. And it is not, as some may say, a character defect. Our attraction to conflict, to destruction, to defiance, is not a flaw, but perhaps our most important feature.

Those who argue for political correctness have decided to place “feelings” at the top of the hierarchy of values, but the danger here is that by doing so, you prevent all possibility of progress. Instead of allowing ideas to clash, and to develop into a “synthesis” or a new understanding, you are limiting their existence to a well-defined arena, an echo chamber, whereby the same propositions are repeated without challenge. If you think of the features of propaganda, you would not find many dissimilarities. But the difference is that the urge for political correctness can be a form of self-imposed propaganda, and it lacks any agenda, other than to ensure closed-mindedness and stagnation.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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