Tuesday, March 24, 2015

America Needs More A**holes Like Me (3 March 2013)

      I shall assert, with all due modesty, that America, perhaps the world, needs more assholes like me.

     I will now clarify that assertion.

     First, I cast no aspersions upon the anus, neither that of humans nor more generally. The anus in itself is an innocent orifice, of great importance in evolutionary history and to be appreciated by all of us organisms organized around a digestive tube.

     Second, America and the planet do not need assholes not like me, for example and especially macho assholes. Nor does the world need more assholes like me in my curmudgeon aspect (with curmudgeons as aged or, to be generous, vintage assholes). As Boomers move into the twilight years, America will undoubtedly have more than enough curmudgeons — at least until younger people realize how much their elders have messed them over with resource depletion, debt, environmental degradation, and transferring money from them to us, and we get a crash in the curmudgeon population when we're recycled as Soylent Grey.™

     No, what we need more of is me as an inner-directed person strong on integrity, and willing to be obnoxious in the process. We need more people like me in my mode of (arguably) a narcissistic, insensitive asshole.

     Actually, I care a lot about what people think of me; but at 5'2" tall (157.48 cm), the initial reaction I'm going to get from most Americans is what I experience as a mild, casual contempt: disregard. They won't actively dislike me — probably — before I open my mouth, but they will kind of ignore me. (I have, after all, needed to call out "Hey, I exist!" on more than one occasion.)

     After I open my mouth, then people can dislike me on more solid grounds.

     Anyway, I overcompensate a lot and tend to be inner-directed, which is a very complimentary way of talking about someone who does what he (usually he) thinks is right without caring a whole lot what other people think or will react.

     Let's start with a harmless example from a simulation game, a variation on "The Prisoners' Dilemma."

     In the variation I played, the prisoners got to talk to each other, and the simulation situation was this: Pairs of prisoners have been arrested; the charges were not revealed to us and would not be revealed — I asked; if both prisoners remained silent, there was a chance we'd both be freed, eventually; but there was a better chance that we'd go to jail for a year. If one simulated prisoner ratted out the other, saying the other was guilty … of something — the accused prisoner would go to jail for at least X years (with X significantly greater than 1), and the betraying prisoner would go free. If each ratted out the other, we'd both go to jail for Y years.

     I didn't pay much attention to those "X" and "Y" details because I, of course, remained true to my fellow prisoner.

     My fellow prisoner — a professor in the Business School if I recall correctly — ratted me out consistently. He betrayed me even after I pointed out to him the Kafkaesque situation we were in — not even told the charges! —and how all we had to depend on was loyalty and integrity.

     Every time, I remained loyal, and he betrayed me.

     Now, if I had my brain in higher gear, on the third or fourth repetition I'd have interrupted the script by telling the game-runners that my fellow prisoner couldn't talk to them because he'd died mysteriously overnight from blood loss and trauma when someone pushed a shiv several times into his ratfink guts.

     Actually, I think that a lot of simulation games and psychology experiments should have their scripts disrupted. E.g., if you know the great Stanley Milgram "shock" experiments on obedience to authority — someone should have snuck a shill into the pool of test subjects, and have the shill blithely deliver all the electric shocks to the supposed victim in the next room, finally saying to the "Experimenter," something like, "Why, why, I've killed him; and you're the only witness …."

     But that's going off on a tangent, though an instructive one for my point.

     At least in a game, a simulation like "The Prisoner's Dilemma," I'm going to stick to my integrity and not allow the actions or probable actions and reactions of another player to determine my behavior.

     It's a control thing.

     I'm not a cynical asshole — although I was introduced to my adviser at Cornell as "a cynical little bastard from Chicago" — I'm not lower-case cynical but try to be something of an upper-case Cynic, with some of the Stoic and the "Job-ic" (as in the Biblical Book of Job) thrown in.
     "What do I have control over?" such people asked; and the answer is "my behavior": even when told, possibly correctly, "Agree with God and be at peace," Job insists "till I die I will not put away my integrity […]. / I hold fast my righteousness and will not let it go […]" (22.21, 27.5-6).

     Capital "C" Cynics say, "Virtue is its own reward" 'cause virtue is not likely to get any other reward — as Job learns, certainly not inevitably get rewarded; but all we have is our integrity and should hold onto it up to, if not including, being told off by God, personally, face-to-face (Job 31, 37 f.).

     So, okay, I'm a wannabe capital "C" Cynical little bastard from Chicago who can be damnably self-righteous.

     And we need more people like me; not a lot more, but more.

     When people sneer at my recycling, they can say, correctly, that I may feel good about recycling but it doesn't do much for the environment.

     And I can say back, "Screw you! I'm following Kant's 'Categorical Imperative' and acting so the principle of my action — here, preserving the environment, responsible citizenship — can be a law for all people. And if nobody else goes along, that's too bad for the environment and for the younger among that 'nobody else,' but screw them, too."

     In other modes and moods, I care a lot about influencing others and about consequences, but in inner-directed, Cynical asshole mode, I don't.

     I write letters to the editor that I know few people will read — and I can look up hard numbers on how few people have read my blogs. I continue to write, but in part in the manner of the Hebrew Prophets or satirists. I.e., I write such things mostly because I have to vent the words and partly because of an archaic belief that if the Word "goes forth" (as a mashal) it will do some work in the world. Similarly, as a teacher I strongly encouraged my students to read my comments and revise their papers, but I suspected from the beginning and was damn sure after a few years that many, perhaps most, of my comments were ignored. I continued to write comments: critique is part of teaching, teaching was my job, "teacher" was in large part who I was and remains a significant part of who I am.

     Push varieties of such "inner-direction" too far, and one gets to sociopath, but the mode is useful for avoiding "group think," at least when "group think" is more like "group feel."
     Feelings are important; empathy is central to responsible morality. Still, sentimentality is not — emphatically not — compassion, and sentimentality can get in the way of ethics; too much squishy feeling for others can stop you from doing the right thing.

     Obviously with squeamishness if, for example, we're hiking together and you get bit by a rattlesnake and I'm too sensitive to cut into the wound and way to fastidious to try to suck out the poison. Not so obviously, consider a scenario where you're an emergency-room nurse in the midst of a major and wide-spread disaster. If that's your assignment, you had better be willing to perform triage on incoming wounded. And as an effective and ethical triage nurse you have to be willing to condemn a probably mortally wounded cute little girl to certain death, if limited resources could be directed to probably saving a severely-wounded, ugly, adult male.

     Indeed, there's a story about emergency food-aid workers in a village who acquiesced to the demands of the village's armed men that they and their starving wives and girlfriends should be given the very limited amount of food available rather than giving it to the young children and infants. "We'll make more babies," the adults said. The doctrine of "Save the Children" and "Women and Children First" might have the aid worker fight to the death against the armed men. The insensitive asshole view might defend the workers from a charge of mere cowardice by noting that the best of a bad situation might be acting to save the village, not individuals, and allowing as legitimate here the adults' argument that, indeed, the younger the children the more quickly they can be replaced, and the weaker the young victims the more likely they would be to die even if fed.

     (For a quick aside I'll supply an infallible law of ethics: Thou shalt strive with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might to minimize the instances in the world where the dilemmas are brutal and triage becomes an ethical imperative.)

     Quite unobviously but more relevantly for most of us, we need more cold-blooded, cold-eyed assholes like me as citizens and politicians: as decision-makers who ask to see the numbers before getting carried away by pathetic images and stories about victims of Disease of the Month or the Disaster of the Week.

     Breast cancer and prostate cancer are horrible diseases and have afflicted family and friends of mine, prostate cancer killing a favorite uncle, and a close friend; but breast and prostate cancer are primarily diseases of the old, and we should refrain from unnecessarily scaring young people about such cancers and putting more resources into combatting obesity, diabetes, and asthma, plus putting more money into foreign aid to combat malaria and enteric diseases, and finally stamp out polio. (And if you seriously want to decrease "excess mortality," a few bucks more invested in anti-smoking campaigns would be money well spent.)

     Kids' getting murdered at school is horrific, but rare. Concern and sensible precautions are appropriate, but we need more assholes (like me) to stress that schools are very safe places for kids and should be made less, not more, like prisons. If SOMETHING MUST BE DONE about school shootings — and this is an imperative regardless of the numbers — it should be SOMETHING involving minor Second Amendment sacrifices by adults, not placing more restrictions on kids. A Sarah-Connor style pump-action shotgun (and a heavy door) should be all even the most nervous grownups need for home defense, and really serious shooters really ought to stick to bolt-action rifles for the personal touch appropriate for civilian weapons.

     Beyond that, as with terrorists on airplanes, we need more non-macho but also non-neutered, nasty folk to say that groups of grownups should have the adrenals and gonads to rush a shooter and bring him down, even if that means some of us will die.

     We're all supposed to do the right thing, and kids shouldn't have to take classes in an armed camp because American adults have timidity issues.

     (For another solid rule to follow no matter what others are doing: Don't allow kids to die unless it's really, really, clearly the least bad alternative.)

     I've grown impatient — feeling kind of disgusted — with an American culture where feelings get in the way of moral judgment, starting with the emotion of fear. Americans are afraid of crime and afraid for their kids and occasionally terrified by rare horrors from obscure diseases to shark attacks. And fearful people do bad things, as is clear from America's overcrowded, budget-busting prisons to dangerous arguments for encouraging fire-fights in schools to more dangerous campaigns against vaccinations.

     Come on people, feel less, think more. Follow the crowd only if they're going some place sensible. Hold fast to your integrity.

     A lot of people you know may think you're acting like an asshole, but odds are you'll be a useful asshole.