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Why I won't compete with you

On vanity, social behaviour, and dialectics

A.: Why did you not interrupt that idiot from speaking nonsense on a topic he clearly did not know anything about?

B.: Why should I?

A.: Because you are an expert in the field. You have written about it at length. People take your opinions seriously.

B.: And how does any of that imply a duty to get into a public argument?

A.: If anything, you could have enlightened him, helped him understand the error of his way, and thus let him know how to improve himself. Consider it a social service.

B.: For it to be likened to social service, both agent and patient need to consent to the act. If I were to rectify his errors in front of his friends, all while he was boasting and acting omniscient and invincible, I would meet resistance in the form of a defensive, combative mentality. You must understand that one’s disposition is of paramount importance. One can only talk with someone who is willing to listen. I judged that the situation was not conducive to dialectic. It was more like picking a fight: eristics rather than dialectics are not my thing.

A.: Still, you could have taught him a lesson in humility. He would learn not to open his big mouth in public out of fear of getting ridiculed.

B.: Now you are changing the intent from the altruism of social service to the egoism of short-term glory, of reigning victorious in an otherwise inconsequential battle. There is no value in ridiculing someone who is clearly compelled by the heat of the moment, hype with friends and all that, to utter something fallacious. It does not educate them in humility, which is a great virtue that comes from the knowledge that you are not as important as you once thought you were. Don’t bring humility into this to justify vanity. As for instilling a sense of restraint in someone through such forceful means, we should reserve our vital energy to challenge, ridicule, or even overthrow those who are in power, those whose irresponsibility and unscrupulousness can be dangerous as their ongoing application may have far-reaching implications on the rest of us. Whereas this random fellow over there was just having a good time with his buddies, could have been drunk, maybe was trying to impress his date, and so on. We cannot judge someone’s motives with so little information on offer, nor do we have to.

A.: So you think putting him in his place would not be worthwhile? Would it not teach him anything?

B.: In the grand scheme of things, it would be ineffective. That noisy dude who was reverently referring to himself in the third person was all about the pretence of power, yet he is not an authority: his ability is limited to his physical prowess. That might sound like much, given his pronounced musculature, but is actually trivial. Power starts to matter only once it controls more than one body. All he can do is punch, kick, grunt. I doubt he has ever run afoul this country’s overlords to get a sense of what authority, supreme political authority, is all about. Ex officio power, sovereignty and everything drawing from it, is considerably more potent: it can channel resources wherever it wants, it maintains and moves armies, controls prison systems, manipulates public opinion, decides what kind of violence is acceptable and by whom, and so on. The establishment must thus be treated differently. It is a matter of proportionality.

[ Watch: On the nation-state, democracy, and transnationalism (2021-05-29) ]

A.: So there is no lesson for him?

B.: No, not in a positive sense. Consider it this way. If you tell me that A > B, B > C, ergo C > A and I punch you in the face, you will not know exactly what was wrong with your reasoning. Maybe you will not even interpret it as a corrective to your error, as you might conclude that I went berserk and simply acted in bad faith. Probably you would punch back, instead of admitting that A > C.

A.: Indeed. I know how that works.

B.: And so my point here is that how you approach an issue matters greatly. The environment, the context, the concatenation of events leading up to the incident conditions someone to interpret the message accordingly. Meaning does not have a standalone, decontextualised presence. Everything must be accounted for. You can only ever teach the one who is prepared to learn. This, by the way, is true not just for humans. If you had ever trained a dog, you would have known how animals react to positive and negative reinforcement and how that depends on the circumstances, which a skilled trainer can discern and adapt to. For example, try to take a bone out of the jaws of a dog that does not trust you: you will get bitten, no matter the size of the dog. Do it on a canine that knows you and has understood that taking something out of its mouth is done for its own wellness—there is trust involved—and you will pick the bone without any trouble (give it back if you determine that chewing on it is not potentially harmful, thus rewarding the trust). Humans pride themselves on their peerless rationality, among others, but we are animals nonetheless and must always keep that in mind.

A.: How do you go about building trust with someone who is boisterous and self-centred like that?

B.: You have to know the person and proceed accordingly. In general though, you can reason about this by trying to analyse the situational magnitudes. That fellow is out with his friends, trying to fulfil this pernicious stereotype of the alpha male or something along those lines. Again, the animal inside all of us. Someone formulated a dissenting view and he immediately took the stage to state his opinion in what looked like an overly confident manner. In such a moment, the person is no longer his unmodified self, as he is attaining a context-specific role: that of being the all-conquering top guy. Speak out against his absurdities, and you will only be ruining his moment. He will act defensively and seek to fend off what he perceives as a threat, a direct attack against his imaginary dominion.

A.: So you are saying that if we remove him from that case, we can get a different person altogether? I find that those over-confident types are always just like that.

B.: Yes, I think we will get something else. Maybe not radically different, but still distinct enough. Everyone has their moments. It is about cancelling out the environmental triggers of the defensive attitude. The dog bites you because it does not know you and cannot tell what your intentions are when you approach its food. Whereas the dog that is familiar with your motions, even one that is much stronger than you, remains calm and is prepared to accept what you are doing. In my experience, the excessive confidence, this impression of unwavering certainty is just the outer shell that conceals some underlying insecurity. Those who need to constantly remind you of how great they are, and who do so on in a dominating fashion, are likely aware at some deeper level that they are not truly at the top.

[ Read: Why I won’t date you (2021-06-16) ]

A.: Now that you mention it, it kind of makes sense. I have noticed it with people who pretend to know more than they do. They have read the dictionary entry on some topic and now think they are on the same footing as the foremost experts on the matter. Same principle for those who conflate watching a 10-minute talk with genuine research.

B.: The greatest difficulty when you are face-to-face with someone is to admit weakness. Paradoxically, it takes a lot of strength, mental fortitude in this case, to do that because you expose yourself to danger, which runs contrary to your basic instincts. Have you ever met anyone in this city who has admitted even once to not knowing something about their field of expertise?

A.: No. I have had a drink or the occasional snack with economists, political analysts, scientists from all sorts of fields. They have all maintained the facade of being untouchable in what they do. It hinges on their tacit claims on infallibility qua experts.

[ Read: Notes on Science and Scientism (2021-04-28) ]

B.: We must withhold judgement, as we know their job depends on it. Our world’s number one currency is certainty. You think you can pursue a career while being a sceptic? Think again! Everything depends on the shared confidence that things will go as expected. Then you could add the environmental factors beside the pretences of work, such as them not knowing you well enough, or fearing that they are in a public space where any sign of apparent weakness might jeopardise their social position indirectly. Apart for that role though, you must have noticed that people only ever open up once they trust you. It takes a lot of time and patience before that starts to happen and even then there may be deep seated prejudices, social taboos, and role-playing going on, which will all work against the expression of honesty. If trust is a prerequisite for sincerity, and if that entails a feeling of safety, then what fuels the outwardness of certainty is radical fear; fear of being exposed to an attack, fear of getting out-competed, fear of the unknown as that mysterious alterity which holds dangers. Uncertainty poses a formidable challenge. We initially are like the dog whose immediate reaction is to bite and turn aggressive when someone approaches it. It takes a lot of effort for a change to occur and the prevailing conditions must also be accommodative. Thus, the mental fortitude I alluded to earlier is not just or exclusively a quality of the person. It can be arrived at as an intersubjective value, a system-wide property, that emerges from the inherent dynamics of you and the other person or group thereof.

A.: Okay, let’s take a step back. How do you build trust in general in order to get in to a debate?

B.: Different people have different needs. The keen observer and listener knows how best to proceed. With our vociferous fellow over there, we determined that the situation would have to change considerably before we could even start. If we were to make the first move, we would be acting unwisely, as we would be behaving contrary to what we understood was the case, like the farmer who insists on sowing seeds on rocky and arid terrain. Whereas with those who are inclined to discuss ideas dispassionately, all they need to get started is to listen to you talk. What is key, in any case, is to be genuine in your non-confrontational disposition. Patience and persistence are interpreted as confidence of a more profound sort, though hardly anyone admits as much. When they figure that you are no threat to them, what the untrained mind may assess as a weakling though in truth it is an inexorable force for good, they will lower their defences. Once they start talking to you, let them be eased into the process by not picking up on everything they have to say. Do not make it seem like an interrogation or a competition. Concede some points and let the flow of the discussion hint at how those initial ideas were not fully developed or outright wrong. The greatest achievement in this regard is to make people think of your contributions as obvious. And that means to lead by example and with kindness, not to issue exhortations which give the impression that all you want is for your opinion to prevail.

[ Read: Why I won’t join your club (2021-06-15) ]

A.: Do you remember that Saturday noon last month when we last met? We had visited this establishment and were having a conversation about the lifestyle of this city.

B.: Yes, I remember it clearly. Warm, sunny day with a pleasant ambience.

A.: There were those two elderly couples who overheard what we were talking about and joined us. That one man also sketched your portrait on a beer coaster!

B.: I still have that. Too bad the material will not last long… I guess you are linking that event to how trust can be built between strangers?

A.: Indeed. It felt so natural and now I think it is because we applied ourselves with calmness. That must have made them confident that we could be relied upon, after they probably observed us for at least half an hour.

B.: That must have been it.

A.: I remember characteristically how one of the ladies stated that the older generations have nothing to offer and that the newer ones, pointing at us, must take charge of things. To which you replied, in your usual style, that oscillating between the extremes will engender yet more problems and that a synthesis is preferable, a basis for common understanding which brings together the experience of the old with the exuberance of the new.

B.: That’s right. I recall how the lady reacted positively by acknowledging non-verbally that her claim was a form of extremism, in the sense that it implied that us younger folks cannot learn anything from those who have seen more in their lifetime. As an aside, “extremism” is kind of a bad word in those parts, though all I mean is that it constitutes a deviation from the rationally derived mean. Our thoughts and acts, preferences and choices, must all be characterised by moderation.

A.: The way you put it was not to say that you disagreed with her. Instead you alluded to the bigger picture of how knowledge has a compounding effect and that the process by which it is expanded is usually gradual and underpinned by intergenerational solidarity. You then pointed at the multiplicity of perspectives on any given issue and how at the social scale no one can claim that one opinion is superior to all the others, as there is no objective benchmark, no perfect scoring system, by which to arrive at the undisputed winner and to rank opinions accordingly with no bias at all. There are just more opinions and then the power of numbers comes into effect, though those have nothing to do with objectivity as such. Only then you elaborated on your appeal for cooperation, though not for the sake of social peace or something along those lines, but as a practical measure that minimises the likelihood of widespread dogmatism, of promoting only one opinion while dismissing all others without offering them a chance to be elucidated and considered in earnest.

B.: What is easy to overlook yet crucial is that those are not rhetorical tricks to sway public opinion. Our intent is to approach the theme with the shared objective of arriving at the truth or, to be more precise, at a thesis that stands to reason and is not the product of some sort of pressure. It is why we speak plainly and do not try to produce those intricate verbal structures that not even a team of specialists can deconstruct with precision. I find it unfortunate that people think of philosophy as word games and disregard the teachings on how to conduct yourself, how to lead a life in accordance with reason.

[ Read: On Discipline (2021-05-07) ]

A.: Tell me about the core difference between rhetoric and dialectic.

B.: Rhetoric is persuasive speech. It rests on an uneven distribution of power between a speaker and an audience. The orator tries to make a case in pursuit of an ulterior motive. All means are employed towards that end, such as appealing to emotion, making bold promises, obfuscating the real meaning of the claims being made or otherwise hiding the intent behind them, outright attacking opponents by slandering them or levelling hyperbolic threats against them. In rhetoric the conclusion is predetermined as it assumes the form of the orator’s objective. As such, the attitude is to insist on a preconceived notion, with the goal being to gain the approval of the crowd, to win the argument more broadly.

A.: And dialectic?

B.: Dialectic is investigation through dialogue. It is a joint exercise to surface each side’s mistaken views, render them conspicuous, subject them to critique in an effort to find better alternatives to them. The telos is to achieve clarity or, at the very least, determine the known constraints and identify the areas that need to be worked on. Honesty is paramount, as is the commitment to not play tricks with the other side by standing firmly by one’s words. Do not misconstrue arguments and do not track back from your positions. The discussion is open-ended and there is no sense in which one side reigns supreme over the other. All that can happen in dialectic is for both sides to win, as they are in agreement that some earlier falsehood is indeed such and must thus be dismissed. It is liberating to escape from false views that held you captive in a view of the world that could no longer withstand scrutiny.

[ Read: The Dialectician’s Ethos (2020-09-30) ]

A.: So, unlike rhetoric, dialectic requires both sides to share the same virtues. It is akin to a dance where the parts must operate in unison. Let’s now apply those findings to our two cases and examine them in this new light. First we have the egocentric bloke. He does not give anyone the opportunity to speak their mind and is not willing or able to listen to what they have to say. Sure, there are environmental factors at play, but for our purposes we could say that the reason you chose not to engage with him was that you determined he was not prepared for dialectic.

B.: In short, yes. This is not to imply that he could never be ready. Just that a preparatory stage would have to be introduced.

A.: In contradistinction, the two elderly couples joined us in a spirit of honesty. No one was trying to prove anything. We were just thinking things through together and we reached some conclusions that none of us held going into that discussion.

B.: Indeed!

A.: Can we now press on with this analysis? I want to have your take on social media, couched in terms of the environmental factors you mentioned and this distinction between rhetoric and dialectic. Perhaps there is something more going on here. What do you think explains the apparent toxicity, the cancel culture, the ochlocracy (mob rule) that defines today’s social media?

B.: I think there are multiple contributing factors to those phenomena. One of them being the very medium, which is digital and curated, else carefully filtered. This sets the stage for a process of dehumanisation, in which users treat each other as bundles of opinions attached to an image, rather than fully fledged human beings.

A.: Dehumanisation! I doubt those who are quick to condemn someone to cyber exile or death would have the temerity to do so in person.

B.: I am not sure. History tells us otherwise. The sense of distance, the absence of personhood, is integral to that mass behaviour. In our case, it is made possible by the technological medium itself though it is not specific to it. Think about what is the essence of the infamous witch hunts. There existed an overarching narrative of the witch as a figure that is manipulative and malevolent; a figure whose very image is deceptive, for it shifts from utter ugliness to sheer beauty through what essentially are deemed to be dark arts, normatively understood as undesirable. Against this backdrop, to label someone a witch is to connect their presence to the narrative, to the effect that you identify them with all that is fastened upon the witch construct. In this context, the witch is not a human or a worthy human, and, thus, the thinking goes, deserves to be eliminated with extreme prejudice. Dehumanisation in action. The same mechanics, albeit without the apparent lore of some dangerous Other, yet with discourses to the same effect, apply to how users are targeted for holding the opinions that are deemed wrong at the moment. There is no longer any argument involved. A narrative is invoked to pass final judgement on an avatar. Again, dehumanisation in action, through which the avatarised person is dismissed in simplistic, binary terms as purely evil.

A.: What else do you think is at play?

B.: Business practices. Ruthless business practices with no moral scruples whatsoever. The mainstream social media are controlled by a handful of mega-corporations. I consider those the “platformarchs”, for they control access to key infrastructure or resources in the economy or social whole. Since the platform is theirs, so is everything that unfolds on top of it subject to their stratagems. To cut the long story short, social media thrive on engagement. The most effective way to keep people hooked, beside the false sense of accomplishment that notifications on a computer device give you, is to create and sustain controversies. Controversy elicits emotional responses commensurate with its content, which create more counter-points of the same nature and of equal force, and the vicious cycle invigorates itself. In a nutshell, social media platformarchs have turned ochlocracy into a business model and, ultimately, a modus vivendi.

[ Read: On platformarchs, the demi-state, and deplatforming (2021-01-26) ]

A.: I see. It is a business that changes the way we think of each other and how we conduct ourselves. And I suppose you would add to those what we already covered before about role-playing and the environmental factors that contribute to patterns of behaviour…

B.: Yes. This is a non-exhaustive list, which I feel is sufficient to hint at the scale of the issue. Perhaps we could add to it the dual vanity of self-righteousness combined with the impossible morality of expected consistency throughout one’s life. The fact that someone is attacked for some silly statement made in their early teens, shows you the level of pretentiousness—as if all those who act shocked never made mistakes in their life. For consistency itself to be considered a virtue is a sign of how shallow everything is. In life we learn to let go and we show a capacity to forgive, all while allowing people to grow into themselves and to then outgrow that as they grow into something else. There is no judicator roaming around delivering justice for the putative sin of not being the finished article from day one. But in the game world of social media, the avatarised user must assume the role of the champion of all that is presumed to be right and must show no mercy to anyone who has committed even the slightest of mistakes.

A.: How should we reason about the problem with consistency? Why is it bad to hold someone accountable for what they say?

B.: Accountability only has effect in power dynamics where there is a question of legitimacy on the use of force. You hold the authorities accountable because, as I mentioned earlier, their power truly extends beyond the person in office. The average social media user is a regular person. We must always keep a sense of perspective and act in accordance with the principle of proportionality. Still, this is not my main point. The fallacy is that consistency of opinion is a virtue. It stipulates that if you had stated something ten years ago you must continue to believe in it today, otherwise you are somehow disingenuous and deserving of being derided for that. Someone will dredge up an old comment of yours that does not match your current views and now you must face judgement. Oh, look! Someone had second thoughts. The horror! Remember how I said that the number one currency of this world is certainty: they want you to be determinable, unambiguous, classifiable. Whereas we are aware that insistence on consistency of opinion is the pinnacle of foolishness. What would be the point of dialectic if we all came to it with the sole intent to remain firmly rooted in our views? It would be a complete waste of time and effort! The greatest intellectual achievement is the appearance of inconsistency, in the sense that you are fully prepared to forgo your position when it is found to be untenable.

A.: How about those folks that find a new opinion and feel the urge to convert everyone to it?

B.: They have yet to understand the meaning of not holding on to your views. When we speak of uncertainty, we do not mean to promote the inane wokeness and pseudo-enlightenment that gets circulated in social media, among other platforms. And we most certainly do not mean to imply that you should become a nag by nitpicking on people’s activity. Ours is a disposition towards life: to not take anything as permanent, to understand that what you now think is true can become untrue. What matters is the attitude, not your current beliefs.

A.: What do you think is the relationship between ochlocracy and the practice of dialectic as you outlined it earlier? Put differently, is there a political system where honest debate can survive?

B.: Ochlocracy is an enemy to all debates. Forget about being dialectical. It is a form of tyranny. The same as a dictatorship, only inverse in terms of the number of oppressors. The balance shifts in favour of those who have no principles and no sense of impartiality. When the space that hosts the debate is itself inimical to nuance and refined argumentation, you already start from a position of easy misunderstandings. Combined with the invidious patterns of the technology, the algorithmic manipulations and perverse incentives they provide to do harm and to revel in it, there is virtually no chance for any kind of intellectuality to survive. To your question though, I think dialectic is for those who are philosophically inclined. As such, I would consider it more of a private concern where like-minded people come together to essentially be themselves and share their real, unadulterated views. There is no polity where the philosopher is free from lingering fear. Repression shifts from latent to active in a moment’s notice. Every country is a potential prison. The here and now is one’s exile from a home they have never been to, from a place where comfort is the norm, where one can be genuine in the open.